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$37.6M grant awarded to develop innovative COVID-19 treatment

For Immediate Release Dec 21, 2020

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – While the world is focused on the promise of the COVID-19 vaccines now being released, researchers continue to look for new and innovative ways to fight the pandemic. Indiana University is part of a consortium – including AstraZeneca, the Wistar Institute, Inovio and the University of Pennsylvania – that just received a $37.6 million grant to develop and study DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies as an additional way to fight SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The grant, awarded from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense, will enable IU and its consortium partners to take its DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies from the design stage into human phase II clinical trials in the next two years. The technology works by providing the genetic information the body needs to produce its own antibodies against a bacteria or virus, such as SARS-CoV-2.

IU’s role in this research study – under the leadership of Jesper Pallesen, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington – will be focused on the structural analysis of the DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies, known as DMAbs, from the design phase all the way through to human clinical trials.

My lab specializes in structure-guided vaccine and therapeutics design,” Pallesen said. “As part of the consortium, we’ll be evaluating how and where our DMAbs bind to the surface proteins of SARS-CoV-2.”

To do this, Pallesen and his team will use cryo-electron microscopy, which enables them to see, atom by atom, how proteins and viruses are built. He will use this technology to view all samples of the DMAbs produced by the consortium starting as early as January.

As well as simply being another weapon in the fight against COVID-19, DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies technology holds many advantages. It’s highly specific to the virus it’s protecting against, it’s quick to manufacture with a low cost of production, and it does not need special cold storage. In addition, DMAbs can introduce antibodies independently of the patient’s own immune response.

“Our technology does not rely on the continual development of a patient’s own immune response to react to SARS-CoV-2 but rather independently creates a recipe for an optimal response,” Pallesen said. “I am really excited to help advance DNA-based therapeutics and vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 and beyond. The distribution advantages of DNA technologies are indisputable, and we have the potential to bring therapeutics and vaccines to people much faster and – perhaps most importantly – to parts of the world that are currently very challenging to service.”

IU Research

IU’s world-class researchers have driven innovation and creative initiatives that matter for 200 years. From curing testicular cancer to collaborating with NASA to search for life on Mars, IU has earned its reputation as a world-class research institution. Supported by $854 million last year from our partners, IU researchers are building collaborations and uncovering new solutions that improve lives in Indiana and around the globe.

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