CSU researchers rapidly developing treatments, drugs and vaccines for COVID-19

There are more than 25 active COVID-19 research projects going on at CSU.

Decades of experience fighting deadly viruses has researchers at Colorado State University uniquely positioned to lead in the fight against COVID-19. Colorado’s leaders in Congress are working to build on the nation’s ability to fully use CSU and other Colorado research institutions to slow the pandemic and save lives.

CSU researchers have more than 25 projects and more than 100 investigators and staff engaged in the worldwide battle against the virus. The university’s efforts to rapidly provide treatment for and protection from the coronavirus, include studying convalescent plasma, repurposing of already approved antivirals and other U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs, and creation of vaccine candidates.

“It’s amazing how prepared we were for this with our assets – both physical and intellectual – and how fast we’ve moved in providing the state, the nation and the world a range of potential solutions and medical countermeasures to the virus that are near-term and far-term,” said Alan Rudolph, CSU’s vice president for research.

The university’s efforts to create a vaccine against this novel coronavirus were recognized by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colorado) in comments made on the House floor March 27. He urged Congress to provide support for Colorado’s research universities in the battle to slow the pandemic: “Will we step up… for the scientists at CSU and at NIH and everywhere in between working to develop a vaccine to the COVID-19 pandemic?”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) also visited CSU’s Research Innovation Center in early March to learn more about the university’s vaccine development efforts and expertise.

Projects underway

Among the more than 25 active COVID-19 research projects at CSU, some of the research areas include the following.

Convalescent plasma

Plasma from those who have recovered from COVID can be used to treat those who have yet to get disease or are early in their disease progression. The plasma contains neutralizing antibodies that can boost a person’s immune system to fight the virus. A team of investigators including Ray Goodrich, CSU’s executive director of the Infectious Disease Center and Heather Pidcoke, CSU’s chief medical research officer, are collaborating on a project to study the efficacy and potential methods to improve the safety of this repurposed plasma treatment as part of planning for potential clinical trials.

“The antibodies in convalescent plasma are specifically made to find the virus and take it out. We are studying pathogen reduction methods that may lower the chance of accidentally giving someone COVID-19 or another infection without meaning to,” Pidcoke said. “Ultimately we want to protect healthcare workers and other high-risk people from getting sick if they are exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Improved screening of drug combinations to speed regulatory approval

The FDA has already approved a number of individual drugs to treat patients showing symptoms of COVID-19 but use of those drugs in new combinations requires additional approval. CSU researchers have established the use of vero cells to screen “cocktails” of approved drugs to accelerate the approval process.

CSU researchers have initiated projects with at least six industry partners – details to be announced shortly – to quickly move these combination drug products toward FDA approval.

“A lot of industries are limited with how they can work with the virus,” said Rushika Perera, an associate professor of virology who is leading the project to repurpose approved drugs for COVID treatment. “They need to partner with CSU to do this research. We have the expertise, labs and physical space.”

Vaccine development

Vaccines can offer long term protection from COVID-19 and CSU has four vaccine candidates in development.

SolaVAX repurposes a commercial platform that is currently used to inactivate pathogens in blood transfusions. The strategy uses light and riboflavin to produce an inactivated virus which stimulates a person’s immune system to fight the virus.

“We are building off of nearly 20 years of experience of using this process to improve the safety of blood transfusion products.  That prior knowledge and current experience helps to translate this rapidly into a way to manufacture vaccine products,” said Goodrich.

Another vaccine project underway would use a genetically modified form of the common probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus to avert infection by the novel coronavirus. The concept of this work, led by Gregg Dean, head of CSU’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, starts with a microorganism that thrives in the mucous membrane – exactly where the new coronavirus attacks the body. The vaccine would interrupt attachment of the virus to host cells at two key junctures, sites that amount to “the Achilles heel of the virus,” Dean said.

“We’re fortunate to have such a depth and breadth of expertise in infectious disease here at CSU,” he said. “Investigators are working on vaccines, on antiviral therapies, on diagnostic strategies, and on how we can inactivate the virus on surfaces. We’re trying to tackle this problem from every angle we can.”

A third vaccine candidate is being developed by Dr. Amy MacNeill, a veterinary pathologist whose team is developing a poxvirus-based vaccine candidate that will express a protein from SARS-CoV-2. The vaccine is designed to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies that bind SARS-CoV-2, preventing entry of the virus into host cells. Blocking entry of the virus will protect vaccinated people from the effects of COVID-19.

Professor Mary Jackson is working on the fourth vaccine candidate at the university. She is using the platform for the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin or BCG vaccine, which prevents tuberculosis, with the hope that it will stimulate an even greater and more specific immune response against COVID-19.

To coordinate the full range of CSU’s research expertise mobilized against COVID-19, Rudolph says the university will scale up secure production of the virus and key reagents for research and manufacturing at the BioMARC biomanufacturing plant. The Biosafety Level 3 cGMP (BSL-3) facility is already making products for other infectious diseases under sponsorship from the federal government, industry and major foundations.  This facility was established by the National Institutes of Health in 2006 for infectious disease outbreak research and response and was the recipient of the 2019 Colorado Manufacturers Award.

“CSU has unique assets to quickly move these agile repurposed strategies into development,” Rudolph said. “We have already established animal models and human clinical development plans for each of these treatment options. We are currently partnering around the globe to on these solutions and will have updates for each strategy in the days and months to come as this current pandemic unfolds.”

Coleman Cornelius and Mary Guiden contributed to this story.