COVID-19 / Science

Pittsburgh has long been a life sciences engine. Now it’s at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine efforts

In the 1950s, Jonas Salk made history by developing the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers are building on that work to treat COVID-19. "We’re standing on the shoulders of giants," said Dr. Louis Falo.

Pittsburgh researchers are answering the call during the pandemic. (Illustration courtesy of Penji)

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If Dr. Louis Falo and his team at the University of Pittsburgh are successful, the same medical school that produced the vaccine that ended polio could produce the vaccine that ends COVID-19.

“It’s great to be in this environment, with this kind of history, with so many great scientists,” Falo said. “We have virologists, bioengineers all working together, and the long history of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh really built on collaborative interactions. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, of all the work that came before us.”

With COVID-19 spreading across the U.S., the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research was one of the labs funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to develop a coronavirus vaccine in late March. Given the life sciences hub that has developed in Pittsburgh, which includes the legacies of Jonas Salk and transplant pioneer Thomas Starzl, it’s not that surprising that CEPI would want researchers from Pitt’s medical school to tackle COVID-19.

In fiscal year 2019, the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in the city alone received $217.7 million in National Institutes of Health funding through 472 awards. Pittsburgh’s Life Sciences Greenhouse, an investment firm that spurs entrepreneurial efforts, has worked with more than 493 startups — including medical devices, therapeutics and diagnostics — since its inception in 2002, and has invested in 84 of those companies.

Falo, a dermatologist and immunologist, wants to find a better delivery method for a potential vaccine, what he calls the “standard, cringe-inducing shot.”

He and his team had been working on vaccines against related coronaviruses, such as those that cause MERS and SARS. So they were able to pivot toward a COVID-19 vaccine with what they already had developed. The PittCoVacc vaccine, as it’s called, would be applied to the skin, kind of like a band-aid, and deliver the virus via tiny microneedles. It’s had successful trials in mice so far.

“Everyone my age or older has a round scar where they got the smallpox vaccine,” Falo said. The PittCoVacc vaccine builds on the scratch method of the smallpox vaccine that delivered the vaccine through the skin. “It’s a high-tech version that is more efficient and reproducible patient to patient.” He adds that the skin-delivery method, unlike the traditional injectable vaccines, is relatively painless: “It feels almost like rubbing Velcro on your skin.”

Intentionally or not, the team at Pitt is taking a novel approach to its vaccine development that is very much in the spirit of Salk when he developed the polio vaccine. According to the Salk Foundation, and very much contrary to the prevailing medical views at the time, Salk was convinced that his polio vaccine could use a “killed” version of the virus to immunize a patient without infecting them. After testing volunteers with his vaccine, one million children were tested starting in 1954, and by April 1955, the vaccine was declared effective.

PittCoVacc builds on the legacy of the smallpox vaccine. (Photo courtesy of UPMC)

PittCoVacc builds on the legacy of the smallpox vaccine. (Photo courtesy of UPMC)

Despite its long history of research breakthroughs and its attempts to rebrand itself as an “eds and meds” hub, however, Pittsburgh hasn’t quite translated its medical pedigree into a robust economic driver in the region yet. A 2017 Brookings Institution report, titled “Capturing the next economy: Pittsburgh’s rise as a global innovation city” found that “the connection between research and industry strengths is weak and is dampening the region’s potential,” and “Pittsburgh has yet to see the economic activity in advanced industries one would expect given its robust academic and research strengths.”

The report said the differences between the level of innovation inputs, such as research and development and investments and its economic outputs, such as jobs, were “stark.” Starting the same year as the report was released, a new effort began to act on the recommendations of the report. Called InnovatePGH, the public-private partnership is knitting together entrepreneurship and innovation with economic development efforts. (Full disclosure: InnovatePGH funded this reporting, but did not review this article before publish.)

It’s creating an innovation district in the Oakland neighborhood — also a cultural hub that is home to museums and WQED, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was taped — because that is where the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and UPMC all have locations. At’s recent Introduced|Virtual conference, InnovatePGH Executive Director Sean Luther said that when it comes to the city’s future, “the presence of two globally significant research institutions in such a dense area represents our marquee economic opportunity for the 21st century.”

That means that along with breakthroughs, jobs can follow. And it’s not an all-or-nothing equation: The push to develop new ventures means spurring many new companies within the city, and in creating density it can also attracts others to move in.

So our mission is really to create a powerful, lasting solution, not just for the current crisis but for any respiratory epidemic.

In the current pandemic, there’s a need for different kinds of ways to address the disease. There are also Pittsburgh life sciences companies looking for treatments for patients who contracted coronavirus. One of the biggest problems doctors treating COVID-19 patients have dealt with is what’s known as a cytokine storm (officially cytokine release syndrome), when a body’s immune system responds to a virus by attacking its own cells, releasing inflammation-causing cytokines.

Teresa Whalen, CEO at CytoAgents, says it’s this immune response that causes COVID-19 patients’ severe lung damage, driving much of the respiratory distress.

“So our mission is really to create a powerful, lasting solution, not just for the current crisis but for any respiratory epidemic,” she said. “While vaccines and other antiviral drugs are somewhat limited to their strain of the virus, we can treat, potentially, many strains.”

CytoAgents is developing a drug that modulates the body’s immune response, reducing the amount of tissue damage caused by cytokine storms, essentially reducing the cytokine’s destructive impact. CytoAgents partnered with U.K.-based Quotient Sciences to test the drug, so far known as GP1881 in phase one and two FDA trials, to evaluate whether it’s safe and effective.

Whalen said Pittsburgh’s life science community is rich with resources and people willing to collaborate and lend their advice and expertise: “We’re a pretty close-knit family.” Whalen added that while Pittsburgh is very strongly entrenched in the diagnostic device and artificial intelligence sectors of life sciences, it’s still growing on the therapeutic side.

For her part, Whalen said she feels the legacy of Pittsburgh’s life sciences sector deeply.

“I went to Pitt, graduated from pharmacy school there, and spent my early careers as a clinical pharmacist in Pittsburgh,” she said. “I remember when Starzl started transplantation here. It’s deeply ingrained in my history.”

Companies: University of Pittsburgh
Series: Coronavirus / Pittsburgh

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