Alabama’s Southern Research intensifying vaccine, therapies study to combat COVID-19

Alabama’s Southern Research intensifying vaccine, therapies study to combat COVID-19
Mark Suto, Ph.D., is vice president of Drug Discovery and interim vice president of Drug Development at Southern Research. (Southern Research)

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Southern Research has accelerated its drug discovery and development activities to identify and test vaccines and therapeutics against coronavirus that could save lives and help restore the nation’s hard-hit economy.

A key figure in this effort is Mark J. Suto, Ph.D., vice president of the Drug Discovery division and interim vice president of the Drug Development division at Southern Research.

Suto, who has made wide-ranging contributions to pharmaceutical research and drug discovery efforts during a 35-plus-year career, has worked in large pharmaceutical companies, as well as smaller biotech and venture-backed firms.

Since joining Southern Research in 2011, Suto has engaged in multiple research collaborations spanning a diverse range of diseases and therapeutic areas, including rare and neglected diseases.

In a question-and-answer format, Suto discusses Southern Research’s multipronged effort to fight COVID-19, the virus causing the serious, sometimes fatal respiratory illness.

Q: What is Southern Research doing to develop new therapies and vaccines against COVID-19?

Mark Suto: As part of our long history with the identification of new medicines to treat life-threatening diseases such as cancer and HIV, we have channeled our resources to address the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, we are collaborating with several pharmaceutical companies to identify new research tools and vaccines. We recently announced a collaboration with Tonix, a biopharmaceutical firm, to test its vaccine candidate.

Birmingham-based Southern Research is testing a COVID-19 vaccine candidate advanced by a New York biopharmaceutical firm. The institution also has tested 3,500 existing drugs to determine which might be effective against the virus. Twelve drugs highly active against the virus were identified for further evaluation. (Southern Research)

As part of a large consortium funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) involving our partnering institution, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), we are building upon our ongoing research on highly pathogenic coronaviruses to develop new therapies. We are also working in partnership with UAB to test compounds for antiviral activity against COVID-19.​

Q: How did Southern Research begin its work?

Suto: From the onset of the COVID-19 threat, Southern Research quickly worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other government agencies to obtain the virus for experimental testing. Due to the nature of the virus (i.e., ability to rapidly spread and cause infection), handling requires highly specialized facilities available at Southern Research. After having obtained the virus, intense research has been initiated and is ongoing, which aims to identify effective therapies.

Q: Has Southern Research activated an internal COVID-19 program?

Suto: In addition to these activities, we established an internal research program to identify known drugs that will be effective against this new threat. In the case of combating COVID-19, speed is of the essence given wide-reaching consequences. It is well known that the development of new drugs is a costly endeavor and requires years of research. Southern Research has taken a nontraditional approach of drug discovery, which could result in the identification of new therapies in a period of months rather than years.

Q: What is Southern Research’s strategy in searching for new therapies?

Suto: Our approach, referred to as “drug repurposing,” consists of developing a rapid method or screen to determine whether there are already FDA-approved drugs that would be effective against COVID-19. We’ve tested more than 3,500 drugs and have identified 12 which are highly active against the virus. An interesting fact is that those that have been identified were all originally developed not as antivirals but rather for a wide range of medical conditions.

Q: What are the next steps in this process?

Suto: Next, we need to further evaluate these drugs under several various conditions to identify those with clinical promise. Also, since all of these compounds are approved for use in people, clinical trials could be initiated very quickly.

Those who wish to support Southern Research’s work against COVID-19 may donate here.

This story originally appeared on Southern Research’s website.

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