Four teams of expert scientists from Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics are targeting the virus SARS-CoV-2 to discover new vaccines and drugs to prevent or cure COVID-19.

The teams are led by the Institute’s group leaders Professor Mark von Itzstein AO, Professor Michael Good AO, Professor Michael Jennings, and Professor Johnson Mak, all world-renowned research scientists in their various fields of infectious diseases research.

Professor von Itzstein AO, Founder and Director of Institute for Glycomics, said that although each team possesses a specific focus and strategy, they were working closely with one another, sharing information, ideas and results, to find innovative ways to tackle the disease.

“This multi-pronged approach between highly skilled infectious diseases experts in the Institute and Queensland Health Departments, including Gold Coast University Hospital and Forensic Scientific Services, coupled with our Institute’s state-of-the-art research facilities and equipment, provides much hope in the fight against COVID-19,” Professor von Itzstein AO said.

Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty AC from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute, University of Melbourne, has been in discussion with Professor von Itzstein AO about the direction of the Institute’s COVID-19 research.

“We urgently need solutions for this disease,” Professor Doherty AC said. “Drugs to prevent or treat COVID-19 and a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 are required; and we need them now.

“The Institute for Glycomics’ integrated approach is exciting, adding to the world’s COVID-19 research efforts and I look forward to learning more of their outcomes, that will advance our knowledge, resources, and opportunities for collaboration so we can get to the end goal faster.”

Professor Mark von Itzstein AO and team

Professor von Itzstein AO and his research team including Drs Patrice Guillon, Larissa Dirr, Ben Bailly, Andrea Maggioni, Ibrahim El-Deeb and Chih-Wei Chang and other institute researchers are using advanced ex vivo (outside the body) human respiratory system models to evaluate existing drugs, and combinations, as drug candidates to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Professor Mark von Itzstein AO

The team is working in collaboration with Queensland Health Departments including Gold Coast University Hospital clinicians and Forensic Scientific Services as well as the Fraunhofer International Consortium for Anti-infective Research (iCAIR). iCAIR was established between the Institute for Glycomics and two German institutions, the Hannover Medical University and the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine, in 2017.

Professor von Itzstein AO, who led the team that designed, synthesised and biological evaluated the world’s first approved designer anti-influenza drug Relenza®, said his research group’s approach to finding a cure for COVID-19 was unique in the country as the human respiratory models they employ were the closest to a real human system, without working in a human patient.

“Our approach to the rapid discovery of therapeutics against COVID-19 in collaboration with our Queensland Health collaborators and our German colleagues in iCAIR gives us the best chance to deliver a successful outcome in finding a cure against this pandemic virus. We need a cure today,” Professor von Itzstein AO said.

Professor Michael Good AO and team

Professor Michael Good AO and his research team are working closely with the other research teams within the Institute for Glycomics, as well as with colleagues at the Gold Coast University Hospital and China’s Olymvax Biopharmaceuticals Inc. to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

Professor Michael Good AO

Professor Good AO, said that while he applauded the approaches being taken elsewhere in Australia and overseas to develop a vaccine, “history tells us that rarely do we strike gold on our first attempt”.

“It is important that many different approaches to developing a vaccine proceed in parallel. We simply do not have the luxury to wait on the results of one vaccine trial to see if we need to adopt a different strategy. We are optimistic that with hard work, one or more of the various approaches that we as a nation are following will be successful,” he said.

Professor Good AO and his team, based within the Institute’s Laboratory of Vaccines for the Developing World, are building on many years of vaccine development experience in streptococcus and malaria research to identify critical target points on the coronavirus that may be susceptible to immune attack and to use that information to develop a highly focussed vaccine.

“All of our combined immunological, virological and clinical expertise will be required for success, but the need for hard work will not be an impediment.

“Our country is facing a health, societal and economic upheaval, but the cause is biological, and vaccination is known to be the most cost-effective way to fight infectious agents and improve public health.”

Professor Johnson Mak and team

Professor Johnson Mak and his research team are working to establish a rapid assay system to evaluate potential drug and vaccine candidates that can prevent the entry of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). This system is currently being used in collaboration with the other research teams within the Institute for Glycomics for the development of therapeutics.

Professor Johnson Mak

Professor Johnson Mak, said that while many drug and vaccine candidates have been suggested to have therapeutic potential in the treatment of COVD-19, the relatively low number of individuals who acquire severe infection make it difficult to properly evaluate the effectiveness of all these drug and vaccine candidates in clinical trials.

“A laboratory-based evaluation system will help to filter out less-promising candidates early on, thereby enabling us to place our resources behind the most promising therapeutic strategy,” he said.

To complement this approach, the research team will work closely with Associate Professor Alan Wee-Chung Liew at Griffith Institute of Integrated Intelligent Systems and fellow Institute Research Leader Associate Professor Thomas Haselhorst in an attempt to use artificial intelligence and structural biology to fast track the development of novel antiviral drug candidates for COVID-19.

“My research team has nearly 30 years of experience in virology research. The collective expertise of our team and our collaborators, both within and external to Griffith University, will help to accelerate our efforts to identify effective therapeutic strategies,” Professor Mak said.

“We are confident that we can positively contribute to the greater global efforts to resolve the crisis situation we are currently facing.”

Professor Michael Jennings and team

Professor Michael Jennings and Dr Christopher Day have developed propriety biophysical drug screening approaches that allow for the rapid screening of known drugs that can be repurposed to target crucial steps in infectious disease processes.

Professor Michael Jennings

“These approaches, in combination with computational biology approaches led by fellow Institute Research Leader, Associate Professor Thomas Haselhorst, are currently being applied to find solutions to COVID-19,” Professor Jennings said.

State-of-the-art research facilities and capabilities

Dr Michael Batzloff, Senior Operations Manager at the Institute for Glycomics, said the facility was fully equipped to deal with the virus.

“The Institute has a number of Physical Containment Level 2 and Level 3 (PC2 and PC3) facilities. These laboratory facilities are designed in accordance with Australian standards and they allow us to conduct research on high-risk pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2.

Institute researchers in Physical Containment Level 3 facility protective gear

“Access to the PC3 facility is strictly controlled and all work can be monitored remotely. These state-of-the-art facilities allow us to conduct SARS-CoV-2 research in controlled negative pressure rooms, ensuring there is no risk to staff or the environment.

“The Institute is taking all the necessary safety precautions to ensure that our vital research continues, whilst abiding by critical hygiene, safety and social distancing measures.

“Our researchers are on site to carry out essential laboratory-based activities only, whilst data analysis and other computer-based tasks will be performed remotely.”

Professor von Itzstein AO said institute researchers were working around the clock to fight the disease and, as a translational medical research institute, we are delighted to bring our virology, drug and vaccine discovery expertise to bear against this deadly virus.

“If anything, the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated just how vital our mission as a research institute is in the fight against diseases of global impact, and it’s incredibly important that our work continues even under these challenging circumstances,” he said.