Viral infections with limited or no treatment options can pose a major global health threat, but a new national research consortium centered at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is focused on the discovery of new and better drug therapies as these viruses emerge.
The UAB School of Medicine will lead in the establishment of the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center, or AD3C, funded by an up to $35 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Richard Whitley, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, will serve as the principal investigator and program director of the AD3C. He says the creation of the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance in 2008 by UAB and Southern Research Institute helped make this new center possible.
“UAB and SRI have spent a lot of time, money and energy developing the ADDA over the last five years,” Whitley said. “Having done that, being awarded this grant shows how that investment can pay off.”
The center will focus on developing drugs against four RNA virus families: influenza, flaviviruses, coronaviruses and alphaviruses — infections causing diseases including West Nile, SARS, MERS, chikungunya and dengue. UAB and SRI researchers will work with top scientists at several other major institutions to target and inhibit specific enzymes essential for viral replication and expression of viral genes, with AD3C providing an infrastructure to accelerate the development of new potential drugs from the lab toward the clinic.
“These families of viruses are of the highest priority for the U.S. government; they represent both biologic threats and unmet medical needs,” Whitley said, adding that the global burden of these diseases is enormous, with West Nile virus and influenza routinely infecting U.S. citizens. “We will also strive to develop therapies for emerging infections such as coronaviruses, dengue and chikungunya, which pose risks for traveling U.S. citizens or could be imported into the country.”
Whitley and other scientists at UAB will study compounds active against influenza with Ghalib Alkhatib, Ph.D., and James Noah, Ph.D., at SRI. Research on other viral agents will also be conducted by top virologists from Oregon Health and Science University, Washington University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“The best outcome of this research would be that, over the next five years, we’re able to develop drugs that can treat humans who have influenza, dengue fever, West Nile virus, SARS coronavirus, MERS coronavirus and chikungunya,” Whitley said. “This team of investigators from across the country and their respective institutions represent terrific intellectual talent to address these challenges.”