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With new $11.35M NIH COBRE award, KU center continues fight against infectious diseases

Tue, 10/05/2021

LAWRENCE — The COVID-19 pandemic is an awful reminder of the “perpetual” public health challenge of infectious disease. In addition to emerging contagions, the world also faces a decline in effectiveness of antibiotics for both human and animal health.

Now, the National Institutes of Health has re-upped its support of the Chemical Biology of Infectious Disease Center (CBID) at the University of Kansas with a five-year, $11.35 Phase II grant. This award mechanism is a component of the NIH Institutional Development Award Program and is a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE).

By funding research projects, hiring and supporting new faculty, improving core facilities and fostering a collaborative research network, CBID will build on previous accomplishments to push forward biological research underpinning next-generation drug therapies for infectious disease.

“This Phase II award is to strengthen and expand the KU scientific community that focuses on better understanding and treatment strategies for infectious diseases with integrated chemical processes,” said principal investigator P. Scott Hefty, professor of molecular biosciences. “The CBID Center is intended to bridge infectious disease and medicinal chemistry expertise to better address the public health challenges."

One of the primary goals of COBRE is to support mentoring of new faculty in obtaining external funding, Hefty said. Another goal is to improve infrastructure, primarily through supporting core research facilities.

"Three scientific cores are supported by this NIH funding, which enables investigators to utilize these research and scientific capabilities," he said. "Also, the center builds community, bringing together many different scientists not just from within KU, but from the University of Kansas Medical Center, from Kansas State and other regional institutions.”

Along with Hefty, the CBID Center is led by Jon Tunge, professor of chemistry, serving as co-investigator. Serving as scientific consultants are Lynn Hancock, associate professor of molecular biosciences, and Ilya Vakser, professor of molecular biosciences and Center for Computational Biology director.

Under the Phase II COBRE support, two new full-time faculty positions will be created in KU’s Department of Molecular Biosciences. These new faculty hires will compliment previous hires made under CBID’s Phase I funding: Anthony Fehr, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, who researches coronaviruses, and Mark Ferrell, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry, who works to develop vaccines.

Fehr, the coronavirologist, was one of the first Phase I hires, pre-COVID.

"So we look like geniuses now, of course,” Hefty said, “but he has been incredibly successful at getting external funding. Additionally, Mark Farrell from medicinal chemistry works on vaccine development and improving immunogenicity. Those two hires during Phase I are a reflection of what we hope to gain in Phase II.”

Hefty and Tunge will oversee and enhance the CBID’s three research cores in Infectious Disease Assay Development, Computational Chemical Biology and Synthetic Chemical Biology. These cores expand the research capabilities for investigators by offering them advanced tools and support. Hancock and Vakser also serve as scientific leaders for these cores.

As an example of the cores' role, under Phase I the Infectious Disease Assay Development core facility was established and outfitted to enable biohazard and specialized assay development as well as small-scale screening for infectious disease targets. This removed a research barrier for a key group of investigators.

“With every organism, there’s going to be something unique about growing it or the conditions it needs," Hefty said. "Our core helps investigators in developing assays that are suitable to go into high-throughput screening (HTS), so that you can screen tens or hundreds of thousands of compounds. But our researchers’ main barrier was infectious disease biohazard components. For them to bring in a biohazard meant they had to get approval for the entire facility.

"Now we have a separate physical location that’s next to the HTS facility but not within it, so that space only is used for biohazard engagement. It’s an add-on, enabling core to an existing core, which is the high-throughput screening facility.”

Beyond adding new faculty and developing research core facilities, CBID has financially backed promising investigations into infectious diseases by junior faculty at KU as well as pilot research projects at KU and partner institutions. Working with an external advisory committee, under Phase II the CBID will continue funding promising lines of investigation.

Ronak Tilvawala, assistant professor of molecular biosciences, is a biochemist investigating targets and potential inhibitors for COVID SARS-2 proteases. Steve Bloom, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry, is studying HIV and peptide therapies. Justin Hutchinson, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, is investigating non-tuberculosis mycobacterium in public-health settings and how water treatment and environmental sources for contamination and infection can be treated.

Another opportunity is pilot projects provided to support investigators from across the state. Investigators from the KU Medical Center, Kansas State University, Wichita State University and other regional universities are eligible for about $65,000 per individual per year for up to two years, Hefty said.

The improved facilities, promising investigations and strengthened research community will provide training opportunities for students and postdoctoral researchers, and also bolster the regional economy.

“The economic impact really is about training individuals that then go to work at local companies, whether you’re talking about graduate students, postdocs or technicians that have achieved a high level of expertise,” Hefty said, noting bioscience companies and other institutions in the region. "Our trainees will learn and then go to those places and support that continued engine of local businesses and economic activity."

Moreover, Hefty said the cores not only support internal investigators, but they also support external, commercial entities that will use them.

More information about the CBID Center can be found at http://cbid.cobre.ku.edu.

Photo:  Researcher Peter McDonald transfers samples in the University of Kansas Infectious Disease Assay Development (IDAD) core facility, located in the Structural Biology Center. The IDAD, Synthetic Chemical Biology and Computational Chemical Biology cores are supported by the recently funded Phase II CBID COBRE. Credit: Anuradha Roy

 



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