Division Announcements

Medical School researchers – building the toolkit to fight COVID-19

research for vaccines, drugs underway

Across campus, a team led by Sean Whelan, PhD, the Marvin A. Brennecke Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology, and Michael S. Diamond, MD, PhD, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine, is looking for ways to treat COVID-19 or reduce its spread.

“We had a discussion in early January and decided then to work on advancing therapeutics and vaccines for coronavirus, because it had the potential to be a significant problem,” said Whelan, who took over as head of the molecular microbiology department on Jan. 1. “It is our responsibility as part of the biomedical research community to do this. The consequences of this virus in places where there isn’t a good health-care system could be dire.”

Whelan called weekly meetings to coordinate the School of Medicine coronavirus research effort. He and Diamond have special expertise in emerging viral infections. Diamond led the School of Medicine response to Zika virus, during which he and others developed a mouse model of Zika infection and identified an antibody that is now used as part of a diagnostic test. While on the faculty at Harvard, Whelan studied Ebola and identified a critical protein that the virus exploits to cause deadly infections.

Whelan and Diamond built a research team including influenza experts Jacco Boon, associate professor of medicine, and Ali Ellebedy, assistant professor of pathology and immunology, who provided advice and scientific tools for studying respiratory viruses; structural immunologist Daved Fremont, professor of pathology and immunology, who has begun studying the interactions of coronavirus proteins with antibodies and other human proteins to facilitate vaccine design and improved diagnostics; David T. Curiel, MD, PhD, the Distinguished Professor of Radiation Oncology, who began designing a potential vaccine; and Siyuan Ding, assistant professor of molecular microbiology, who is investigating whether the virus also can be transmitted through the fecal-oral route.

The team is analyzing the structure of the virus’s proteins to find possible targets for drugs or vaccines, looking for antibodies that might protect against disease, creating potential vaccines using multiple strategies, and developing a mouse model that can be used to test potential drugs and vaccines.

“The speed of research on coronavirus has been extraordinary,” Diamond said. “Chinese scientists identified the virus, sequenced its genome, identified the probable animal source, and released the genomic sequence to the public in a matter of weeks. Groups around the world have been creating and sharing the tools we need to interrogate this virus. But even so, these things take time. Every day, the U.S. is seeing new cases. We are racing against the clock.”