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UNM to add to knowledge of coronavirus

Dr. Bryce Chackerian

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As a new coronavirus spreads across the world, virology experts are trying to learn as much as possible about the virus and the disease it causes.

That includes researchers at the University of New Mexico, who recently obtained samples of the coronavirus to study.

There are about five labs across the UNM Health Sciences Center that are studying samples of the virus, said Dr. Bryce Chackerian, a virologist who studies vaccine development. The labs will embark on research projects while also putting in place social distancing measures, such as having employees work in shifts, he said.

“UNM may be shutting down, but personally, I feel that with my expertise I should be doing something about this,” he said. “I think this is something that any individual researcher is thinking about: ‘How can they contribute to this?’ ”

About two weeks ago, the school obtained the virus samples from BEI Resources, which was established by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Dr. Steven Bradfute, a viral immunologist and assistant professor in UNM’s Department of Internal Medicine and Center for Global Health.

BEI’s website said this week that there is no shortage of samples of the coronavirus and that it is taking 12 to 72 hours to register a lab to receive the samples of the virus.

Chackerian runs one of the labs at UNM that are studying the virus. His lab includes him, a Ph.D.-level scientist, four graduate assistants and a research technician.

His specialty is using virus-like particles to trigger a person’s immune response. The strategy was used to create the vaccine for human papillomavirus, he said.

There are other strategies for creating vaccines. A clinical trial recently launched in Seattle is trying to use the coronavirus’ genetic material to make a vaccine, he said.

“Whether our technology is appropriate for this virus, or if it has advantages or not is hard to know. There are other groups that are way ahead of us at this point,” he said. “But I think we feel as scientists that we are dealing with this infection really personally, and I do think we feel an obligation to use our expertise to try to address things as much as possible.”

Dr. Steven Bradfute

The world doesn’t have a vaccine against any coronavirus, forms of which can cause the common cold, other serious diseases and COVID-19, the new illness that is spreading across the planet and has already infected more than 378,000 and resulted in more than 16,000 deaths.

“That’s why we’re dealing with an unprecedented situation here, because it’s not clear what vaccine strategy is going to be most effective against the coronavirus,” Chackerian said.

A vaccine is still likely a ways off, he said, because it takes phases of trials to determine a drug’s safety and effectiveness.

So there’s additional research going on to look at possible remedies if someone is exposed to the virus, Bradfute said. His lab is looking at therapies that can be used to help those who are exposed to or have COVID-19, essentially running tests to determine whether existing drugs that are safe can help treat the sick.

The world is waiting for a medical breakthrough in dealing with the coronavirus. And, Bradfute said, it’s hard to know where that breakthrough could come from — either smaller academic labs or large pharmaceutical companies.

“I think good ideas can come from anywhere, so it’s hard to predict where it’s going to come from,” he said. “I have been working with very small academic labs, and I’ve had discussions with very large companies. So I think there’s a chance for a lot of different smart people to help out with this. Where anything is going to come from, I don’t know.”

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