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Building Robust Collaborations to ‘ATTACK’ Future Pandemics

California-based UC-NL ATTACK Consortium leverages novel science and technologies to accelerate drug discovery


  • Scott LaFee

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  • Scott LaFee

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the development of antiviral drug treatments has become a critical weapon in the arsenal against the virus. 

Harnessing the research and scientific brainpower required to treat and prevent the next pandemic is the University of California-National Labs Antiviral Treatments Targeting All Coronaviruses and Key RNA viruses (ATTACK) Consortium.

The group integrates expertise and resources from six University of California (UC) campuses in San Diego, Los Angeles, Davis, Berkeley, Irvine and Riverside, plus two national laboratories at Lawrence Livermore and Sandia and 13 industry partners. 

“Putting such expertise under one roof will help alleviate much of the silos that have plagued previous antiviral drug development,” said Brigitte Gomperts, MD, professor of pediatrics and pulmonary medicine at UCLA, consortium director and principal investigator. “That is our ultimate, overall goal. We want to prevent and be prepared for the next pandemic.”

Collaboration and expertise

On a recent day at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA, 50 top researchers in antiviral drug development gathered. 

Among them was Davey Smith, MD, a translational research virologist, head of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of PREPARE Institute at UC San Diego, an acronym for Pandemic Response to Emerging Pathogens, Antimicrobial Resistance and Equity. Smith is an ATTACK consortium director and principal investigator.

“I was awed by the intelligence in the room and the ability to solve these complex problems and prevent future pandemics,” he said. “The ATTACK Consortium is bringing ideas from the bench to the bedside through motivation, collaboration and trust. We have partners as part of the consortium who can move ideas and discoveries to the clinic through their expertise and abilities and that is enabling us to work at a quick pace.”

The ATTACK Consortium meeting has allowed new collaborations and experiments to get off the ground in the short term, with a long-term eye toward further development of the drug development pipeline that already exists between UC campuses and national labs, from basic research through clinical trials.

“We have picked up the ball and we are running with it,” said Smith. “We have learned from past pandemics as far back as the HIV virus 40 years ago and those that have come since (Ebola, Zika, MERS, SARS) and we are better at predicting what viruses may present in the future. The hope of this group is to develop what treatment could be used for (these future viral threats).”

Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, PhD, an associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA, has been working on viruses and infectious diseases for years.

“We need a combination of antivirals and vaccines to kick the virus and kick the pandemic,” said Arumugaswami. “The extraordinary measures of this pandemic have created an opportunity. I never thought I’d see over 50 of the world’s top researchers across a variety of disciplines coming together to attack this problem.”

National laboratory, industry resources

The speed of collaboration is aided by support from the national laboratories and industry partners. Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Sandia National Lab fall under the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration Laboratories.

The Energy Department's 17 national labs tackle the critical scientific challenges of our time and possess unique instruments and facilities, many found nowhere else. They address large-scale, complex research and development challenges with a multidisciplinary approach that places an emphasis on translating basic science to innovation.

“As a partner, the national laboratories have served as leading institutions for scientific innovation in the U.S. for more than seventy years,” said Robert Damoiseaux, PhD, professor of molecular and medical pharmacology and bioengineering at UCLA.

Having worked closely with the national laboratories in the past, Damoiseaux said adding their brainpower and resources to the ATTACK Consortium will extend the group’s capabilities and strengths.

“The national labs have resources and interest in antiviral drug discovery that add another dimension to what we can do,” he said. “This allows us as a public entity to have a very different approach that is transparent and community-focused. It can impact the public good on a wider scale.”

Felice Lightstone, PhD, is group leader of biochemical and biophysical systems at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:  “The national labs offer not only high-performance computing and BSL-3 (Biosafety level) clearance for secure agent research, we create technologies that can make the drug design process more efficient and more effective.”

“This is cutting edge research,” said Smith at UC San Diego. “With this group, we can fully integrate the drug development process. For example, while we are designing drugs for efficacy, we should also be developing in parallel safety profiles for the drug. If we are looking at efficacy and safety at the same time, then we can shorten the drug development timeline.”

Research already underway

“We took a divide and conquer approach and everyone chipped in their strengths and capabilities to ‘ATTACK’ this global health problem,” said Damoiseaux. “Hence the name of the consortium.”

Currently, five integrated research projects and four scientific cores are working to achieve Consortium goals. Projects include:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) Drug Discovery
  • Novel Ultra High Throughput Drug Screening 
  • Drug Optimization for IND enabling studies 
  • Viral RNA Targets 
  • Viral Protease Targets 

Adam Zemla, PhD, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore, and Adam Godzik, PhD, professor of biomedical sciences at UC Riverside, are two researchers collaborating on ATTACK projects. They are analyzing the Omicron variant for consequential mutations.

“There is so much unknown about what will happen next and so much complexity that is needed to help achieve our goals,” said Zemla. “We are moving forward toward having experts in all these fields, which will allow our project to advance and be prepared for the next pandemic.”

Damoiseaux is confident ATTACK can make a difference.

“We are a conglomerate and one of the biggest academic groups to go after these types of solutions. It is necessary to do this work to discover treatments and drugs to treat and prevent future pandemics and protect the health of our global population. If we do this, then we will be ready.”

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