The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) at Northern Arizona University today announced that it is launching the COVID-19 Testing Service Center (CTSC) to grow the SARS-CoV-2 virus and test new drugs against it. By repurposing its existing biodefense research infrastructure for the new testing facility—labs rated at Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3), one of the highest levels of biocontainment—PMI is dedicating much of its significant research capacity to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
NAU built the PMI labs in 2008 to enable researchers to handle dangerous pathogens, including research on anthrax, the regionally important Valley Fever and many other diseases such as plague, West Nile virus and Zika virus, with an emphasis on developing new diagnostic tools, therapeutics and vaccines.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that requires the whole scientific community working together to find fast, cheap and effective solutions to the problem. Our ability to redirect the PMI BSL-3 facilities to COVID-19 research is a small but important part of the nation’s path forward,” said PMI Executive Director and NAU Regents’ Professor and Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology Paul Keim, a world expert in pathogens such as plague and anthrax. He worked with the FBI to crack the “anthrax letters” case in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 22, 2001.
Although highly-trained staff members at PMI will conduct much of the direct research with the virus, both undergraduate and graduate students will be involved in supporting roles for this work, in keeping with NAU’s strong commitment to student engagement in cutting-edge research.
“By launching the new COVID-19 Testing Service Center with our talented scientists in PMI, we’re investing in a healthier future for Arizona, for the nation and for our whole world,” said NAU President Rita Hartung Cheng. “I’m very proud of their dedication and hard work.”
Cancer drug to be first therapeutic tested at the CTSC
The first therapeutic agent to be tested against the COVID-19 virus at the CTSC will be the promising cancer drug 2X-121, developed by the Danish firm Oncology Venture, which recently signed a joint research agreement with PMI and NAU to evaluate 2X-121.
2X-121 is a small molecule that is targeted to inhibit Poly ADP-Ribose Polymerase (PARP), a key DNA damage repair enzyme active in tumors; other PARP inhibitors have been shown to have promising antiviral activity (Y. Ge et. al, “A data-driven drug repositioning framework discovered a potential therapeutic agent targeting COVID-19”). Oncology Venture’s 2X-121 molecule is being evaluated for the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer in a Phase 2 clinical trial at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which would accelerate its potential use as an antiviral agent.
The Oncology Venture PARP inhibitor is the first of many potential therapeutic agents to be tested at NAU’s CTSC. Many of these compounds are novel and have never before been tried as antiviral agents. The cost-effective in vitro inhibition studies provided by the CTSC offer a rapid means to directly test the effects of these compounds on virus reproduction, so promising candidates can be quickly be moved on for more advanced development and testing.
Additional existing drugs that have already been approved for treatment of other diseases also will be efficiently screened by the CTSC for their potential action against SARS-CoV-2. As these molecules show strong virus inhibitory action in vitro, the CTSC will be able to continue in vivo testing. This two-stage testing is essential to demonstrate efficacy and safety prior to testing the potential drugs on humans.
CTSC leader recruited for expertise in pathogen science
NAU assistant professor C. Todd French, who is leading the new CTSC, was recently recruited from the University of California Los Angeles for his expertise in pathogen virulence mechanisms. He is a veteran of Select Agent and high-containment pathogen science and brings unique capabilities to PMI.
“The expert staff and world-class biosafety facilities at PMI are unique in Arizona and are the main reasons why I relocated from California,” French said. “With these resources we are ideally positioned to have a positive impact on this disease.”
“NAU and PMI were ecstatic to hire such a talented new scientist in January, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now leveraging his talents across multiple projects,” Keim said. “He will be leading the new testing center and helping our partners understand their drugs.”.
Keim is also a distinguished professor at The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and co-director of TGen North. Keim and members of his research team have earned an international reputation for their work in the areas of microbial genetics and genomics, forming ongoing collaborations with various government agencies and institutions, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. They have developed many patented assays to detect and treat potentially deadly diseases such as MRSA and swine flu.
Keim is featured in this recent interview about the virus on Arizona Public Radio KNAU, as well as in an article in the Arizona Daily Sun about how labs are conducting tests. 12 News covered a recently formed partnership between PMI, TGen and the University of Arizona to study COVID-19.
About the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute
The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) is a research unit at NAU that spans department and colleges to gather infectious disease and microbiome scientists into a single multi-disciplinary environment. The joint efforts span computational, genomic, microbiology, immunology, and public health disciplines to generate synergy that can’t be achieved within academic silos. The world-class science makes for an ideal training environment for students to achieve their personal professional goals. PMI is closely associated with TGen North, with whom the institute shares infrastructure to maximize Arizona’s investment in science.
Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research