Carolina is famous for its low stone walls – our culture of collaboration – that leads to exceptional research and exciting discoveries. Our unique, collaborative campus, in combination with our breadth of science, allows translational thinking and approaches that ultimately yield innovations and action.
Recently, we celebrated a $65 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to create an Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Center led by Ralph Baric, professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, that will address emerging infectious diseases with pandemic potential through innovative, multidisciplinary research.
AViDD Center scientists will work towards early identification of new viral targets and will collaborate with industry partners to speed up research and development of antiviral drugs. This project is the result of a remarkable collaboration that started with a conversation between three colleagues from three different departments: Ralph Baric from the Gillings School, along with Mark Heise, professor of genetics, and Nat Moorman, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, from the UNC School of Medicine – who happened to be chatting in the Burnett-Womack building on campus.
The group had been working together as part of a UNC Creativity Hub winning proposal, the ID3@UNC Hub (Infectious Disease Drug Discovery Program at UNC), focused on developing broad-spectrum antivirals for virus families including coronaviruses. The team’s cutting-edge proposal was awarded seed funding through the OVCR’s Creativity Hubs Program and the Eshelman Institute for Innovation in 2019 – prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ID3@UNC Creativity Hub brought in Ken Pearce from the Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery and Tim Willson from the Structural Genomics Consortium.
When COVID-19 emerged, Heise, Baric and Moorman realized that there were no existing therapeutics to treat and prevent disease. They decided something had to be done to make sure we would be better prepared when the inevitable next pandemic arrives. Together they co-founded the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative (READDI), a non-profit public-private partnership whose mission is to develop broad spectrum antiviral drugs for pandemic virus families. John Bamforth, director of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, joined the group as READDI’s executive director.
Since its inception, READDI has received ongoing support from the Eshelman Innovation Institute, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, and multiple UNC schools and departments. In May of 2020, READDI received support from the NC Collaboratory as part of the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) appropriating $29 million for COVID-19 research projects. These funds were critical in catalyzing the project and propelling it to have enormous impact on the world’s efforts to combat SARS-CoV-2 by developing broadly acting, universal coronavirus antiviral drugs.
In early November 2021, the team drew on regional collaborations to expand even more to include Duke University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and RTI International and successfully competed for $5 million in funding from RTI’s Forethought Research Collaboration Challenge. Their winning proposal tapped local partners to accelerate the production of new antiviral drugs, capitalizing on unique regional strengths and deep partnerships and collaborations.
On November 18, 2021, READDI was the recipient of $18 million in state appropriations for further expansion as a unique global public-private partnership, bringing together leaders from industry, government, philanthropic organizations, and academic research institutions to accelerate the development of new antiviral drugs.
Today, the team is poised to make significant advances in small molecule antivirals through their new AViDD Center, a federal grant that comes from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in 2021 and is administered through a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to support the creation of the nine AViDD Centers for “pathogens of pandemic concern.”
Carolina’s low stone walls allowed our researchers to cross-pollinate disciplines and approaches across departments, regional, and global institutions to address one of the greatest global challenges of our time. There are few such places in the world where scientists work side-by-side across the full spectrum of translational science: viral genetics, clinical and population studies, and drug development.
The magic of having this type of crosstalk is rare. As you can see from READDI, itʼs also incredibly productive and impactful, allowing necessary progress from preclinical, basic science to clinical trials, and even further to develop therapies at an accelerated pace. There are infinite possibilities that can grow from chance conversations on our collaborative campus.
We are so incredibly grateful for generous contributions from the NCGA, the fast-paced work of the NC Collaboratory, and the innovative support provided by RTI, which fostered multiple discoveries that formed the foundation of READDI. This critical initial funding was instrumental in securing the new multimillion-dollar grant from NIAID which will empower READDI to reduce gaps in the availability of antiviral drugs and speed the delivery of lifesaving tools when needed most. The READDI public-private partnership is a perfect example of how our state and our region have been able to succeed in collaboration to have true and deep impact on the world.