Developing antivirals for pandemic-level viruses

Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago are working with the National Institutes of Health and researchers from across the country to establish a center for antiviral drug development for pandemic-level viruses, including Ebola and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

The center, called the Midwest Antiviral Drug Discovery Center, is led by the University of Minnesota and is part of a network of nine national centers established by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in response to the public health emergency caused by COVID-19. The project is funded with an initial three-year grant and an anticipated extension to five years that would include additional funding. 

Lijun Rong
Lijun Rong, UIC professor of microbiology and immunology.

The center brings together collaborative investigators from 16 institutions nationwide to discover effective responses to pandemics, life-threatening infections and drug resistance through basic, translational and clinical research. 

UIC will receive approximately $3 million for the research with the University of Minnesota and will focus on developing an antiviral therapy for filoviruses, like Ebola. 

Lijun Rong, professor of microbiology and immunology, will lead the UIC research. 

“Our lab uses high throughput screening to perform large-scale experiments and generate large sets of data to identify the viral protein targets, which are used by viruses to enter human cells and replicate. We have screened several small molecule libraries and have identified many potent inhibitors against filoviruses, arenaviruses, influenza viruses, henipavirus, HIV and SARS2,” Rong said. 

Rong’s lab, in partnership with Chicago BioSolutions, a startup company, and other researchers at UIC, has developed a potential antiviral for Ebola and will use the funding to further develop and test this therapy. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the public’s eye about the dangers of emerging and reemerging viral pathogens, and this funding mechanism and research is critical in becoming better armed to combat the impact of these pathogens in the future,” Rong said. 

Rong is hopeful that within the next three to five years the drug will be ready for testing in humans. 

Working with Rong on the research at UIC are Irina Gaisina, Terry Moore, Michael Caffrey and Laura Cooper.   

In addition to UIC and the University of Minnesota, other collaborating institutions on the Midwest Antiviral Drug Discovery Center grant (1U19AI171954) include Baylor College of Medicine, Boston University, Georgia State University, Iowa State University, Nanyang Technological University Singapore, New York Blood Center, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, UF Scripps Biomedical Research, University of California Berkeley, University of California San Diego, University of Iowa, University of Louisville, University of Tennessee Health Science Center and University of Texas Health San Antonio.   

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