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Saturday June 25th

Gillings awarded $65 million to create Antiviral Drug Discovery Center

Rosenau Hall, home to the Gillings School of Global Public Health where many UNC students and faculty conduct on-campus research, as pictured on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
Buy Photos Rosenau Hall, home to the Gillings School of Global Public Health where many UNC students and faculty conduct on-campus research, as pictured on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.

The Gillings School of Global Public Health was awarded a $65 million grant by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to establish an Antiviral Drug Discovery Center that will combat pandemic-level viruses like COVID-19.

The AViDD center being established at Gillings is one of nine across the country that will be established using NIAID funding. The grants are part of the NIAID’s Antiviral Program for Pandemics, an intensive research program developed to further therapeutics for COVID-19.

AViDD centers conduct research involving the early identification of new viral targets and use the resources of their industry partners to speed up research and development efforts.

The center is closely affiliated with the University’s Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative, which aims to improve drug discovery and development processes and develop antiviral drug solutions for the future.

Mark Heise is a professor of genetics in the UNC School of Medicine who co-founded READDI alongside Ralph Baric and Nat Moorman. 

“We are going to learn new information about every virus that we work with. We're going to essentially really move into areas that are on the cutting edge, and so to be involved in that sort of effort is really exciting,” Heise said.

The READDI-AViDD Center is a public-private partnership equipped with an interdisciplinary research team from Gillings, the UNC School of Medicine and the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. The project also received funding from N.C. Collaboratory and the Research Triangle Institute.

The original READDI program was supported through UNC's Creativity Hubs initiative and the Eshelman Institute for Innovation. It also received funding from the N.C. General Assembly and N.C. Congressional delegation members.

The READDI-AC team will use innovative technology to develop oral therapies for viruses that are likely to cause another pandemic. The center will also help develop antivirals that will reduce the risk of sickness and mortality for future diseases that are highly contagious.

Tim Willson is a professor at the pharmacy school and the co-director of the READDI-AC. Willson has taught at the University for eight years and said he is looking forward to collaborating with interdisciplinary colleagues on antiviral drug discovery. 

“The fact that we’ll get to share all of that information with not just the other AViDD centers, but with any company that’s interested in exploiting that, I think that just maximizes the chances that our discoveries will actually be successful in terms of finding new medicines,” Willson said.

Willson said READDI shifted from its normal research when COVID-19 began to spread in 2020, and it conducted research during that time to address the pandemic. 

He said the new center will focus on collaboration and research in a public domain, with findings that will be accessible to the public. 

“It's this commitment we have to do all of the lead discovery in the public domain and to share the results with any of the other eight AVIDD centers, so here we are trying to benefit society and the public good,” Willson said.

READDI director John Bamforth said he has worked with the institute since its creation about three years ago.

“Essentially, the goal of READDI, the mission, is to develop five broad-spectrum antiviral drugs against potential pandemic viruses and have them through phase one testing within the next five years,” he said. 

Bamforth said the READDI initiative is currently working on over twenty projects within the program, and the NIH grant expands the possibilities of work READDI can accomplish at UNC. 

“What I am excited about the most is us basically realizing the potential of what we’ve created over the last three years and seeing the science play out in novel therapeutics,” Bamforth said. “So we want the next great therapeutics in this antiviral space to come from Carolina and come from the READDI network.” 

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