Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler are currently working on 3 different projects to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. With research underway, investigators aim to discover meaningful advancements on a global scale in relation to diagnostic test development, vaccine development and patient treatment.

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Guohua Yi, PhD., a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded virologist, is leading 2 major projects with UTHSC. Dr. Yi's most recent project, prior to efforts being shifted to the COVID-19 pandemic, aimed to utilize gene editing techniques to develop more effective treatments of multiple diseases and infections, including cancer and HIV.

One of Dr. Yi’s current projects relates to developing a COVID-19 diagnostic test that could be conducted faster, more efficiently and with greater accuracy than current methods. This project will identify an optimal fragment of a protein that binds COVID-19 and will be added to the structure of a carrier protein developed by Dr. Yi. The protein incorporating the virus-binding fragment will be used to build an ELISA test that has the advantages of requiring small amounts of respiratory samples, potentially greater accuracy and being adaptable for high throughput.

Dr. Yi’s second project aims to prevent spread and save lives with the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Collaborating with researchers in El Paso, the joint effort hopes to deliver a vaccine that works by targeted stimulation of the immune response to COVID19. Based on a new platform, their proposed vaccination will utilize antiviral antibodies that activate T cell immunity. Should Dr. Yi’s work prove successful, his COVID-19 vaccine could advance the fight to manage the sweeping COVID-19 pandemic.

The third COVID-19 project is derivative of over 15 years of research conducted by Professor Sreerama Shetty, PhD, in collaboration with Senior Vice President for Research and Dean for the School of Medical Biological Sciences Steven Idell, MD, PhD. A compound called LTI-03 was identified as being able to prevent lung scarring in preclinical testing. It is now in phase I clinical trial testing sponsored by Lung Therapeutics, Inc., a biotechnology start-up founded by Dr. Idell, which has attracted over $50 million in investments.

Now, the duo is exploring LTI-03’s potential application for COVID-19 patients. The factors that cause severe lung injury in lung scarring and acute lung injury are commonly seen in coronaviral pneumonias that have previously been described in SARS and MERS, which caused past lethal epidemics that were more limited in scope than that associated with COVID-19. COVID-19 is a new pathogen, so less is known about the lung injury, although early reports suggest that the lung injury it causes is similar. LTI-03 can be administered through inhalation and will soon be tested in models of COVID-19 to see if it can prevent early lung inflammation and scarring that typically occurs in patients with severe COVID-19 lung infection.

Now, more than ever, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler’s commitment to ground-breaking research stands to provide answers on a global scale to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The full press release from UTHSC can be read here.