BME professor receives coronavirus-related NIH grant

Professor Roy and his research team receive funding from NIH to combat COVID-19. // Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech News

Professor Krishnendu Roy, the Robert H. Milton Chair in the School of Biomedical Engineering, and his research team were recently awarded a grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further their research on adjuvants. Adjuvants are molecules that may trigger beneficial responses in humans when used in conjunction with vaccines, in this case for use in vaccines targeting the novel coronavirus. 

This latest grant from the NIH comes as an extension of previous grants awarded to Roy and his team through the Molecular Mechanisms of Combination Adjuvants Grant, now specifically tailored to further research that combats the pandemic. 

Professor Roy’s research into adjuvants consists of examining previously-known adjuvants to identify the one best equipped to respond to the genetic makeup of COVID-19. When added to the vaccine mixture, the adjuvant can trigger a person’s immune system response more quickly and improve the chances of fighting off the infection. The adjuvant Alum has been mixed into vaccines since the 1930s to make sure that the body does not overreact to the vaccine in a potentially harmful way.

The NIH is currently expanding grants to researchers developing vaccines or treatments to combat the novel coronavirus. This includes the streamlining of funding guidelines and of grant application processes, as well as providing more funding to propel pre-existing research in microbiology and epidemiology that is now more pertinent.   

Currently, more than 100 different vaccines are in some phase of production, but none have yet been approved for widespread use in the United States. There are two vaccines in Phase III large-scale efficacy trials, where the vaccine is distributed to thousands of volunteers along with a placebo in a blind trial. A further seven vaccines are in Phase II trials, where the safety of the vaccine is tested across different demographic groups. 

Five promising vaccines were selected by the U.S. government to participate in Operation Warp Speed, a fast-tracked funding and approval scheme. Even with this accelerated track, the earliest vaccines are only expected to become available for widespread use in early-to-mid 2021.  

So far, there have been more than 7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 internationally. The U.S., at 2 million cases and over 100,000 deaths, holds the morbid title of world leader in both cases and deaths. The state of Georgia has almost 56,000 confirmed cases and approximately 2,000 confirmed fatalities. Fulton County has more than 4,000 confirmed cases, the most of any county in the state. 

In spite of the social distancing measures undertaken by the state, many of which are now being relaxed, there are still hundreds of new cases of the respiratory infection being reported every day.