College of Pharmacy researcher working to address COVID-19 pandemic

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April 15, 2020

Yizhou Dong
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Yizhou Dong, PhD, associate professor in the Division of Pharmaceutics and Pharmacology, has been determinedly working on a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 in response to the pandemic that has shuttered countries around the world.

“The original work focusing on mRNA engineering started four years ago, and in early February, we integrated our research findings on the creation of potential vaccines to address today’s pandemic,” Dr. Dong said. “Vaccines are the most effective strategy to prevent viral infections for a large population. Our technology may provide an effective vaccine platform against viral infections such as SARS-CoV-2.” 

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is part of a family of single-stranded RNA. To move toward a vaccine, Dr. Dong and his team systematically investigated the untranslated regions (UTRs) of messenger RNAs (mRNAs), and through a comprehensive analysis of endogenous gene expression and de novo design of UTRs, his team identified the optimal combination of 5’ and 3’ UTR, termed as NASAR, with greater expression efficiency compared to tested endogenous UTRs. Using lipid-derived nanoparticles to deliver NASAR mRNAs significantly increased expression of potential SARS-CoV-2 antigens both in vitro and in vivo. This work by his team suggests that these NASAR mRNAs merit further development as alternative SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

Dr. Dong has published more than 50 articles in prestigious, high-impact journals, and his research has resulted in over 30 patents and inventions. Many of his inventions have been licensed and several clinical trials are planned to be initiated in the near future.