Campus is quiet. Once-bustling walkways and classrooms are empty. Libraries, restaurants, offices—all closed.
But high in a fifth-floor lab in USC’s Ronald Tutor Hall, engineer Pin Wang and his colleagues work with urgency. They’ve halted all other experiments as they methodically pursue a singular goal. They’re searching for a cure.
“You know that researchers are really determined,” says Wang, a Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “Everyone on my team feels this is important. We are determined to work on this as much as possible.”
The target in their sights hardly needs an introduction: COVID-19. The coronavirus causing the disease has launched countless research teams into an unprecedented race to develop a vaccine and new therapies and tests — critical tools to slow its global rampage. Wang is among dozens of USC scientists who are part of a special university-wide research task force focused on thwarting the coronavirus.
In his lab, his team searches for an effective vaccine and treatments to help patients recover faster. They hope to find it using their expertise in immunobioengineering, an emerging field that relies on highly technical engineering know-how to strengthen the immune system.
USC Team Builds Hybrid Virus as Vaccine for COVID-19
Wang and his team have already cobbled together a hybrid virus that holds promise as a vaccine for COVID-19. They pieced it together from the core of an infectious disease that mostly affects livestock along with spike proteins from the COVID-19 virus.
By having the COVID-19 surface protein, this can hopefully trick our immune system into recognizing it,” Wang says. “That way, we can induce the neutralizing antibody to stop the virus from infecting us in the future.
“By having the COVID-19 surface protein, this can hopefully trick our immune system into recognizing it,” Wang says. “That way, we can induce the neutralizing antibody to stop the virus from infecting us in the future.”
The scientists also are examining how the immune system responds to the coronavirus with those healing antibodies. If researchers can replicate that process and create more antibodies, they could limit the severity of the disease’s effects on the body. “We could directly infuse the antibodies into the patient to block the virus,” Wang says.
Even as they see early positive results in the lab, Wang and his team caution against expectations of a quick fix. If their approach works, they’ll need to prove that the hybrid virus will trigger our immune systems to make enough protective antibodies to block COVID-19. And vaccines require rigorous testing in clinical trials, a process Wang expects will take 18 months.
“We know it’s time-sensitive and everyone wants to get a vaccine as soon as possible,” he says, “but we don’t want to generate something that may cause harm.”
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