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UNC-based drug development program aims to be 'readdi' for future pandemics

Dr. Mark Heise poses for a portrait in his lab inside the Burnett-Womack building on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Heise is a a professor of microbiology, immunology and genetics in the UNC School of Medicine and a collaborator of READDI.

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic, yet much of the world was unprepared to face it. Scientists at UNC are committed to ensuring this lack of preparedness does not happen again. 

The Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Discovery Initiative was founded in April 2020 as a collaboration between UNC, the Eshelman Insitute for Innovation and the Structural Genomics Consortium. Since its founding, READDI has made significant strides in garnering support and partnerships for its mission. 

When it became clear that COVID-19 was going to be a real threat, Ralph Baric, Nathaniel Moorman and Mark Heise channeled their worries about the spread of the virus to create READDI.

“The scientific community tends to be reactive when an outbreak occurs,” Heise, a professor of genetics at UNC’s School of Medicine and READDI co-founder, said. “So we started to think about ways that we could maybe not be reactive, but be proactive in the face of pandemics — and that is really what drove the READDI concept.”

John Bamforth, interim director of READDI and director of the Eshelman Institute for Innovations, said the goal of the initiative is to have five novel broad-spectrum antiviral therapies go through phase one of human safety testing within the next five years. 

These therapies aim to save lives in the current pandemic, and help prepare for future pandemics before they begin.

UNC students have reaped the benefits of working alongside the world’s leading scientists. 

Emily Madden, who recently defended her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the UNC School of Medicine, said she has been working with READDI since the beginning. 

“Dr. Heise approached me and asked if I would be interested in working with READDI,” Madden said. “I absolutely was because I was working on my Ph.D. to help study viruses to be prepared for outbreaks and pandemics. In the lab, I use an assay that screens how well a virus is growing in the presence of a drug.” 

The UNC Gillings School of Public Health, School of Medicine and Eshelman School of Pharmacy have collaborated with READDI to further promote its work, Heise said. 

UNC has invested $6.5 million in the project to date. READDI’s partnership network spans across the globe with over 20 projects partnered with pharmaceutical companies, universities and non-governmental organizations.

“Over the last year, I'd say we've made a significant amount of progress,” Heise said. “Both in making READDI a functional reality and in building the interactions and relationships that are going to be essential for READDI to be successful.”

But the work does not come without its challenges, Bamforth said. Funding is crucial to the advancement of READDI’s drug therapy development. Getting governments around the world to focus not only on the current pandemic but also the threat of future pandemics is a hard sell.

Bamforth said READDI’s success partially relies on governments engaging with and prioritizing the funding of the research. 

“It is hard to convince a drug company to produce a drug for a disease that does not exist,” Bamforth said. “The market dynamics really do not help the development of drugs for things that do not exist.”

Bamforth urges the UNC community and beyond to encourage elected representatives to continue developing pandemic preparedness for the future. It is vital for politicians to think long-term about putting strategic plans in place so the country is not left scrambling in the face of a growing pandemic, he said. 

The future of READDI is bright, and its work is far from over, Heise said. Although the initial focus is on coronaviruses, flaviviruses and alphaviruses, the hope is to expand into other viral families with significant emergence potential.

“We will continue to build partnerships to meet our long term goal of producing broad-spectrum antiviral drugs that will be available for both the next pandemic and the pandemics that will follow,” Heise said. 

The impact of COVID-19 has painfully proven that the world cannot afford to face another pandemic without preparation, Bamforth said. 

“We can not forget this experience,” he said. “It will be very tempting to put it behind us and think we do not have anything to worry about. The reality is, we are not 100 percent sure why these viruses are occurring more and more frequently. The global community needs to continue thinking about how we can encourage developing pandemic preparedness.”

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