WASHINGTON -- Efforts are underway at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences to support the fight against the pandemic, including some that apply existing research and knowledge to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
USU's Dr. Roopa Biswas, associate professor of anatomy, physiology and genetics, and biochemistry, and her colleagues have long studied ribonucleic acids, or RNAs, as well as short segments of RNAs, known as microRNAs or miRNAs. These molecules regulate the expression of genes — the process by which the instructions in our DNA are converted into a functional product, such as a protein. RNAs have recently emerged as an important therapeutic target for COVID-19 and are being used to develop COVID-19 vaccines.
Over the years, Biswas and her colleagues have sought to understand how abnormal levels of RNAs can lead to inflammation in pulmonary disorders, such as cystic fibrosis in which the inflammatory response damages the lung and its airways. Through their previous research, the scientists identified certain miRNA-derivatives that have anti-inflammatory properties, which mitigate this lung destruction. Today, they're looking to see whether those anti-inflammatory miRNAs could be used to mitigate lung damage caused by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Biswas explained that she and her USU associates, in collaboration with Dr. Samarjit Das and Dr. Elizabeth Tucker at Johns Hopkins University, are focusing on how short segments of non-coding RNAs can interfere with protein formation, which in turn could reduce inflammation and ultimately suppress the virus. Some of these RNAs are designed to directly target the virus itself.
''Our goal is to suppress inflammatory proteins, like Interleukins (IL-6, IL-8, IL-1-), which play a major role in the damage caused by SARS-CoV-2,'' Biswas said.
So far, their initial tests to determine how well these anti-inflammatory non-coding RNAs reduce lung damage caused by SARS-CoV-2 are seeing promising results, she said.
In addition, USU researchers in Bethesda, Md., are working with scientists, under a material transfer agreement, at the regenerative medicine biotech company NellOne Therapeutics on a study that's looking at a protein called NELL1 to treat the severe tissue damage from viral infections.
This protein has been previously shown to restore injured bone, cartilage, skeletal and heart muscle tissues via mechanisms (for example, regulation of over-inflammation, stem cell recruitment, blood vessel formation and balancing cell growth and maturation) that are also necessary to mitigate respiratory tissue damage caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection. The biotech company has a proprietary composition of the NELL1 protein that Biswas is now testing at USU to treat SARS-CoV-2 infected mice.
''As a scientist, I have always wanted to make a contribution to science,'' Biswas said. ''I feel fortunate to have an opportunity to work on COVID-19 related research. I'm also hopeful that our endeavors will lead to a potential therapy for COVID-19, which, in turn, could ultimately help save lives.''