TAU Wins 3M Grant to Accelerate COVID-19 Vaccine Development

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Grantee Professor Jonathan Gershoni aims to block the coronavirus by targeting its most vulnerable spot

Science-based technology company 3M has awarded a significant philanthropic research grant of $400,000 (1.36 million NIS) to the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research at Tel Aviv University to advance scientific knowledge in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The grant from 3M, which bases its Israel operations in Herzliya, is part of a $5 million initiative to support research programs with a focus on treatments and vaccine development for COVID-19 at leading educational establishments around the world. TAU secured the funding through an international competitive process; this reflects the high esteem in which the University’s scientific research programs are held. The grant was disbursed via 3M’s grant-making partner, GlobalGiving, to ensure thorough vetting, due diligence and reporting.

The research project is being led by Professor Jonathan Gershoni, a renowned expert in viral pathogens, who said: “Publication of the SARS CoV2 genome on January 9, 2020, launched the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. Tens of vaccine candidates have already entered clinical trials, the leaders of which are actively recruiting thousands of volunteers worldwide for phase III efficacy trials. All these efforts use the viral spike protein as their vaccine’s active ingredient. This relatively large protein is made up of 1200 amino acids arranged in groups of three, decorating the virus with a crown-like appearance.

“The spike protein presents many targets that have evolved to confuse and distract our immune system and to steer us away from the virus’ most vulnerable soft spot, its receptor-binding motif (RBM). In order for the virus to successfully infect us and cause COVID- 19, it must first latch onto a unique protein, the ACE2 receptor, which is present on the surface of our lung cells. For this, the viral RBM, a tiny but highly complex structure, must detect ACE2, bind to it and mediate infection. A vaccine that exclusively targets the RBM should be extremely potent in affording maximal protection against SARS CoV2 by stimulating our immune system in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

“We have developed a novel patented technology to ‘surgically’ isolate the RBM from the rest of the spike protein. This grant from 3M will significantly enhance our efforts to produce a highly focused, potent and especially safe vaccine for COVID 19,” he added. 

Prof. Gershoni’s Lab team (Photographer: Moshe Bedarshi)

This study is anchored in more than 30 years of research on the interaction of RNA viruses with their receptors and the immune response against them, noted Professor Tal Pupko, Head of the Shmunis School at TAU. “The 3M grant will dramatically accelerate the pace of research for overcoming COVID-19,” said Professor Pupko, adding that Tel Aviv University was particularly proud to be included in this important global initiative by 3M.  

“Science is at the heart of 3M and we are committed to advancing the rapid study of this virus as part of our continued effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Isabelle Zadikov-Carp, 3M Israel Country Leader. “It’s important that 3M holds true to its core values by supporting our communities and improving lives. We hope that the grant to TAU will facilitate the development of an effective vaccine and we will be keenly following the progress and outcomes of Professor Gershoni’s research with interest.”

Featured image: Professor Jonathan Gershoni (Photographer: Moshe Bedarshi)

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