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UNM vaccine team gets $250,000 grant

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico scientists have begun testing mice for coronavirus antibodies after giving them experimental vaccines.

It’s part of a $250,000 yearlong grant awarded last month to UNM by the National Cancer Institute. David Peabody, a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the UNM School of Medicine, is the principal investigator on the grant.

“It’s part of an effort to use supplementary funding as a way to get money quickly into the hands of people who are working on this problem,” Peabody said.

Scientists throughout the world are experimenting using different vaccine strategies. Some experimental vaccines have already started clinical trials.

The UNM grant is for scientists to try to concoct a vaccine with “virus-like particles.” It’s one of several strategies that can be used to make a vaccine, and an expertise of several virologists at UNM.

The team uses a harmless virus that infects bacteria called MS2 and essentially hangs parts of the coronavirus onto it.

“It’s a completely harmless particle, but it has the ability to serve as a scaffold upon which we can hang bits and pieces of other viruses, in this case bits and pieces of SARS-COV2,” Peabody said, using the formal name for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. “In other words, we can trick the immune system that it’s been infected with (coronavirus) and produce effective antibodies.”

Bryce Chackerian, the vice chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, who is also working on the project, said one of the team’s goals is to find the best microscopic part of the coronavirus to attack with a vaccine, he said.

“That’s part of the grant, to try to figure out what parts of this virus to target to make the best vaccines,” Chackerian said.

Peabody said that mice have already been injected with several vaccine candidates. A month or so after they have been given the vaccine, their blood will be tested in a lab for coronavirus antibodies.

The grant was a supplement to an ongoing study at the Cancer Research Center at UNM, Peabody said.

The money will pay for supplies, animal studies and salaries of the researchers working on the project.

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