Research News

UB industry partners step up to fight COVID-19

Biomedical Engineering Faculty Jonathan Lovell in Bonner Hall. Photo: Douglas Levere.

Jon Lovell, associate professor of biomedical engineering (shown here in 2014), created technology in his lab that is the basis of POP Biotechnologies' vaccine delivery system. Photo: Douglas Levere

By JESSICA SZKLANY

Published December 18, 2020

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“These university-industry partnerships demonstrate the impact of how academic and private organizations in the community can join forces to leverage each other’s strengths to find solutions for complex scientific challenges and processes, and ultimately contribute to innovation and economic growth in the Buffalo Niagara region. ”
Christina Orsi, associate vice president for economic development

COVID-19 rapid diagnostic test kits and their reagents. A next-generation vaccine adjuvant platform. How to predict dosing of monoclonal antibodies. Air sterilization technology.

You may not be familiar with all of these terms and technologies, but if you or a loved one contracts COVID-19, they could be vital for prevention, diagnosis, treatment and recovery. And they are being developed right here in Western New York — made possible, in part, through state funding leveraged by UB.

Support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Empire State Development and the Division of Science Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR) has enabled UB to connect its academic community with industry partners to foster innovation in the life sciences — particularly in the areas of new therapeutics, diagnostics and medical devices.

Through UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences (CBLS), the Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences (UB CAT) and Buffalo Institute for Genomics and Data Analytics (BIG) — all divisions within the Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships — UB’s industry partners gain access to university expertise in faculty and students, state of the art technology platforms and funding to accelerate the growth of the life sciences companies in Western New York. Several of UB’s industry partners have pivoted their research and development efforts toward winning the battle against COVID-19.

ZeptoMetrix, Rheonix tackle diagnostics

Advancing COVID-19 testing is a focus for ZeptoMetrix, a life sciences company working to develop new and highly effective diagnostic tools for infectious diseases worldwide.  Made possible through the support of BIG, ZeptoMetrix is utilizing technology at the CBLS that enables the precise quantitation of the amount of virus formulated into diagnostic test controls that help to verify accuracy of COVID-19 test results. Without controls, tests can produce false positives or negatives, causing confusion and anguish for patients and their families.

Woman using a large research machine.

Rheonix produced a fully automated COVID-19 diagnostic test. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

To produce dependable controls, ZeptoMetrix scientists inactivate the coronavirus in a specialized lab that allows them to safely work with highly infectious agents and then formulate the treated virus at target concentrations based upon testing sensitivities. The resulting non-infectious reagents can then be used by hospitals, labs and researchers without risk of infection.

“Through support from BIG and access to sophisticated laboratory equipment located at the CBLS, we were able to better characterize the concentration of inactivated SARS-CoV-2 and thereby create more precise controls that greatly improve the testing community’s reliability in conducting COVID-19 molecular tests,” says Shawn Smith, CEO of ZeptoMetrix.

The non-infectious reagents developed by ZeptoMetrix have been utilized by another UB partner, Rheonix, to advance rapid diagnostic COVID-19 testing. Rheonix is a molecular diagnostics company that produces fully automated, one-step benchtop testing devices and microfluidic assays, used in part for the detection of infectious disease. The company has a longstanding relationship with UB, including collaborating with researchers at the CBLS and its Genomics and Bioinformatics Core, and receiving support from UB CAT.

In less than three months after the pandemic struck the U.S., Rheonix produced a fully automated COVID-19 diagnostic test. With minimal training, technicians in approved clinical laboratories can take and test patient respiratory samples using the fully automated Rheonix workstation, receiving results in less than a day versus the several days it can take to receive results when sending them out to testing labs.

In April, the Rheonix test received the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization (EUA) for COVID-19 testing and is now in use at laboratories in local and regional hospitals and health networks in New York State and beyond.

“Rapid diagnosis is critical in efforts to control the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” says Richard Montagna, senior vice president for scientific and clinical affairs at Rheonix. “We at Rheonix are grateful to the people on the front lines fighting the spread of the COVID-19 illness, and are proud to be able to support them with a rapid, accurate and automated tool to assist in their efforts.”

POP Biotechnologies pursues vaccine

At the start of the pandemic, POP Biotechnologies Inc. (POP BIO), a UB spinoff company located at the UB Incubator @ Baird, was able to swiftly transition its particle-based, vaccine-delivery platform to focus on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The proprietary platform was originally designed to enhance the performance of vaccine antigens for various illnesses such as respiratory syncytial virus, HIV and cancer — work that has been supported by UB CAT funds.

POP BIO developed, and has been testing, a SARS-CoV-2 protein vaccine candidate in partnership with Korean vaccine maker Eubiologics. The results show the system is effective in preclinical studies. “The underlying technology can rapidly generate immunogenic particles for vaccine applications, and that is the approach we are pursuing,” explains Jonathan Lovell, co-founder of POP BIO and UB associate professor of biomedical engineering. “We hope to bring it into clinical testing in the near future.”

The company is also working on a peptide vaccine that does not require freeze storage, allowing for easier and more widespread distribution.

According to Lovell, POP BIO’s approach has been shown to be particularly potent for SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development. Through UB CAT funding, POP BIO will continue to generate data to further validate the platform technology.

In addition, the company is receiving a $3 million equity investment from Eubiologics, with whom it has formed a joint venture, EuPoP Life Sciences, headquartered in Buffalo. POP BIO also has active research collaborations with two major, international pharmaceutical vaccine makers.

Expediting treatment options

While much COVID-19 research is concentrated on testing and a vaccine, others are working on treatment options to help save the lives of those who have the virus, including BIG partner and CBLS tenant Enhanced Pharmacodynamics (ePD). The big data service provider is supporting commercialization of a potential treatment for COVID-19, applying methods normally used in its work on cancer drug development.

Using a quantitative systems pharmacology approach, ePD creates computational models that safely predict how monoclonal antibodies — drugs intended to both prevent and treat existing COVID-19 infections — will interact with the human body. The company’s work enables new compounds to be evaluated and to make preliminary dose projections and other drug development decisions prior to having data in human volunteers from clinical trials.

A partnership with BIG enabled ePD to purchase sophisticated commercial software and grants them access to computational expertise and high-performance supercomputers at UB’s Center for Computational Research (CCR), located in the CBLS. State-of-the-art computational horsepower through CCR substantially optimizes the company’s work. It has also benefited from UB interns, some of whom are now ePD employees.

“We utilize the CCR to run computational machine-learning algorithms, which incorporate various in vitro and pre-clinical in vivo data sources, to project minimally effective human dosing regimens to expedite development of these novel treatment options for COVID-19,” says Scott Van Wart, ePD vice president and chief scientific officer.

You First Services stops airborne virus

Donald Mager posed for a portrait in Center Bioinformatics Life Sciences (CBLS) in 2020. They are with Enhanced Pharmacodynamics part of Startup NY.

Donald Mager, professor and vice chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, is president and CEO of Enhanced Pharmacodynamics. Photo: Douglas Levere

Equally important to fighting COVID-19 are prevention techniques such as environmental systems designed to remove or destroy pathogens from the air. Buffalo-based company You First Services has licensed technology from UB to develop SteriSpace™, an engineered air sterilization system that uses compressive heating and pressure to break up and destroy airborne pathogens such as COVID-19.

SteriSpace can be a standalone unit for individual rooms or can scale up to be integrated into a building’s air handling system and customized for different configurations. The technology can be permanently installed to provide clean air for any indoor environment in which people gather where pathogens are likely to linger, such as hospitals and schools.

In addition to licensing technology from UB, You First Services is leveraging the CCR, as well as funding from UB CAT, to simulate and model airflow in indoor spaces.

“We highly value our long-standing partnership and collaborative links with UB. Through our collaboration with academic institutions, we have gained new perspectives on the latest technologies and developed insight to help combat existing, new and re-emerging diseases faster. The incredible quality of the research programs here at UB has helped make Western New York a leading destination for life sciences and biotechnology research,” says Satish Sharma, executive chairman and chief executive officer of You First Services Group of Companies and UB research associate professor of urology.

“Uncontrolled infections can bring miseries, overwhelm the health care system and negatively impact economies. At You First Services, we are committed to continuously working to transition basic research to unique and outstanding clinical applications in terms of productivity, impact and excellence,” Sharma says. “We will continue to partner with UB to make a significant positive impact on the overall economy of the state and region.”

Partnerships serve community and beyond

These are just some of the potential life-changing, biomedical technologies from UB partners that are transforming prevention, diagnosis and treatment in the global fight against COVID-19. Continued support of future innovations will aid in cementing Western New York as a hub for life sciences and positively impact the health of both community residents and the economy.

“These university-industry partnerships demonstrate the impact of how academic and private organizations in the community can join forces to leverage each other’s strengths to find solutions for complex scientific challenges and processes, and ultimately contribute to innovation and economic growth in the Buffalo Niagara region,” says Christina Orsi, UB associate vice president for economic development.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, our campuses went into action to help their local communities and the entire state — whether it was coming up with innovative ways to test for COVID-19 or conducting breakthrough research to understand the virus,” says SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras. “The recent partnerships between University at Buffalo and local organizations in health care are yet another example of SUNY’s strength in working collaboratively with industry leaders to solve for problems and overcome obstacles caused by COVID-19.”

Adds Eric Gertler, Empire State Development acting commissioner, and president and CEO-designate: “The University at Buffalo’s partnerships with industry leaders in the fight against COVID-19 are highlighting the economic and life-saving benefits of New York State’s industry-university collaborations. Gov. Cuomo’s strategic investments in Buffalo, and UB entrepreneurship, have laid the groundwork for this scientific research that is helping communities both battle the pandemic and build back.”