San Diego science & the spirit of collaboration

May 27, 2020 - Heather Dewis

The COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging to keep up with – especially if you’re like us, and only have a vague recollection of your high school biology textbook. What’s the difference between an antibody and an antigen? And…how close is science to finding a cure, or even a treatment?

Earlier this month, local experts from Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, Arcturus Therapeutics, and Thermo Fisher Scientific met virtually to talk San Diego

What’s happening in San Diego science right now?

Dr. Sumit Chanda, professor and director at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, is working on a “repositioning” strategy. Dr. Chanda’s lab analyzes drugs that are previously tested and approved by the FDA to see whether they prevent replication of the novel coronavirus. “We already know they’re safe,” Dr. Chanda said, “We wanted to see if they were effective.” Of the 13,000 drugs his lab has screened, 30 showed promise.

Joseph E. Payne, president and CEO of Arcturus Therapeutics, is leading company efforts to develop a single-shot vaccine. Unlike traditional vaccines, Arcturus’ proposed mRNA vaccine is self-replicating and devoid of viral materials. This means one dose can make more of the protein to invoke the desired immune response than other single-dose vaccines.

John Stevens, VP of IT at Thermo Fisher Scientific, discussed the company’s speed in gaining approval and distributing COVID-19 tests. Thermo Fisher’s Carlsbad manufacturing facility is running in a safe, controlled environment, with commercial and distribution teams that have ramped up work to meet the immediate needs of the pandemic. “In some cases, it would take us one to two years to make an enzyme,” Stevens said. “We’re doing that in one to two weeks here.” As of April, the company was shipping 5 million tests per week.

San Diego’s partnerships = one of a kind

Dr. Chanda offered specific praise for the collaborative spirit found in San Diego. “I don’t know if it’s the weather or the synergy, but the partnerships that happen here don’t happen anywhere else. We are working with Scripps, UC San Diego, a number of local companies across different disciplines,” Dr. Chanda said. The lab is one of a few with the ability to grow & screen the virus at scale, so the team opened their capabilities up to regional life sciences teams doing complementary work. “If you have a compound you think might have antiviral properties, we will look at it for you,” Dr. Chanda said. “We are working with local companies & providing them that data package that they can then move on to additional studies to see if their compounds can move onto clinics.”

Stevens agreed. “The partnerships are really important – different companies with everyone working together is truly how we’re going to combat this going forward,” he said. “[Thermo Fisher] has leveraged a lot of great relationships in the San Diego area. New partnerships come in every day, and I think it’s important to keep working together as one team.”

Next up: new opportunities

So what’s next – for COVID-19 efforts, and for San Diego life sciences?

If you’d asked last year whether Arcturus would be in the vaccine business, I’d have said no,” Payne said. “Globally, we’ve learned our lesson and are humbled – we’re engaged now, not only to provide vaccines for this pandemic, but for future ones. Arcturus – and San Diego – will play an active role in that.”

Stevens said: “These new verticals of vaccines & test kits, it’s all open territory. We’ve really got to make sure we pivot because it’s very important for global health. I see that these verticals are going to change dynamics & open up brand new opportunities in San Diego & the surrounding areas.”

“Recently, these pandemics have been nipping at our heels – warning shots, and we finally got hit,” Dr. Chanda said. In addition to preparing for future pandemics, Dr. Chanda emphasized the need to build strong infrastructure for future partnerships. “A lot of the collaboration has been really organic, but it does need command & control, some infrastructure – San Diego is really poised to tackle that effort, not only for this, but for future pandemics.”


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