World-class team partners to fight COVID-19, viruses of the future with $65M grant from NIH

Consortium of Hackensack Meridian CDI, Rockefeller University, Columbia University, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Rutgers University, Merck, Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute and Aligos Therapeutics to combine expertise to ‘accelerate’ new breakthroughs

With a mission to discover, optimize and test innovative small molecule antiviral drugs to target coronaviruses, a unique collaborative enterprise of academic and pharmaceutical experts in New York City and northern New Jersey on Monday announced they formed a regional drug accelerator to address the urgent need to develop novel antiviral treatments for SARS-CoV-2, its variants, other coronaviruses and pandemic viruses, and as well as future viral threats.

Known as the Metropolitan AntiViral Drug Accelerator, the consortium will combine world-class virologists and academic drug finders from Rockefeller University, Columbia University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation and Rutgers University in New Jersey, along with proven antiviral drug developers Merck, the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute and Aligos Therapeutics.

MAVDA will be funded by a three-year, $65 million-plus grant from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s Antiviral Drug Discovery Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern program.

MAVDA’s goal is to rapidly develop drugs that can be given orally, and in an outpatient setting, in the near future.

The overall program will be co-led by drug discovery expert Dr. David Perlin at the Hackensack Meridian CDI and Rockefeller University virologist and Nobel laureate Dr. Charles Rice. The program benefits from other senior world class virologists including Dr. David Ho and Dr. Stephen Goff (both of Columbia); drug discovery experts Dr. Jingyue Ju (Columbia) and Dr. Tom Tuschl (Rockefeller); structural biologists Dr. Lawrence Shapiro (Columbia) and Dr. Dinshaw Patel (MSK); medicinal chemistry, pharmacology and drug screening experts Dr. James Balkovec (CDI), Dr. Joel Freundlich (Rutgers), Dr. Veronique Dartois (CDI) and Dr. Fraser Glickman (Rockefeller).

“This public-private partnership is how science can prepare for the next phase of SARS-CoV-2 — as well as other current and new viral threats,” Perlin, the chief scientific officer and senior vice president of the CDI, and also a professor at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, said. “Vaccines were a terrific breakthrough to help stem COVID-19 after the initial spread — but, as we have learned with COVID-19 and other pandemic diseases, vaccines alone are insufficient. We need effective drugs that can be used early and distributed widely to diverse populations around the world.”

“We need to think differently,” Rice said. “Bringing all this experience and expertise into the same program and having everyone ‘pull’ in the same direction, can produce some great results.”

The MAVDA consortium brings together scientists who already collaborate on many anti-infective projects, chief among them the CDI’s NIH Center of Excellence in Translational Research, helmed by Perlin and which includes industry participation.

This partnership, which coalesced during the federal agencies’ call for plans to discover new antiviral therapies last year, seeks specifically to leverage the strength of the partners on coronavirus and flavivirus targets.

The scientists have a specific set of eight molecular features in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that have critical roles in viral replication, maturation and also immune-system evasion. Chief among them is 3CLpro, which is the virus’s main protease for replication.

The teams have put together a “drug accelerator” plan involving five cooperative projects focusing on the targets, and matching likely drug candidates against them. Six integrated pharma-style “cores” of MAVDA provide the expertise from the various institutions; for instance, Rice and Rockefeller’s virology contributions will be complemented by the expertise of Columbia’s Ho, a professor of microbiology & immunology, Clyde ’56 and Helen Wu Professor of Medicine and director, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. In other areas, Columbia and Memorial Sloan Kettering will provide structural biology prowess, while the CDI and Rutgers will contribute medicinal chemistry know-how.

The CDI’s capabilities in pharmacology and animal research models will also play a major part in the drug accelerator program, which patterns itself on the TB Drug Accelerator program, of which CDI members have played a major part over the last decade.

“Having these teams, which contribute in their own ways, is going to move the work along faster and more efficiently,” Ho said. “We’re eager to do our part.”

Equally important to these early phases of discovery are the pharmaceutical partners. As Perlin and others have described, the public-private partnership will bridge gaps which normally stifle advancements in key health areas.

The goal is to take what the scientists discover on the academic side, and rapidly translate it using the capabilities of the pharmaceutical companies.

“We are excited at the breadth of this project, and the huge difference it could make,” Perlin said. “For a global health challenge like COVID-19, we need to think bigger — and differently. We embrace the challenge.”