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OU Health Sciences Center Researcher Joins COVID-19 Vaccine Project

OKLAHOMA CITY AND AUSTIN, TEXAS – The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center has launched a research collaboration with Pure MHC, an innovative biotechnology company, to work toward the development of a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

At the OU Health Sciences Center, the scientific team is led by William Hildebrand, Ph.D., whose expertise is helping the body’s protective immune cells target and kill virus-infected cells. He will be working with Pure MHC, part of a family of biotechnology companies formed, funded and managed by Emergent Technologies, Inc. Approximately 20 years ago, it commercialized and advanced Hildebrand’s and others’ research to develop breakthrough drugs and therapies. This partnership represents a unique collaboration between researchers in a university setting and a company with the scientific expertise and investment to further the project.

Hildebrand’s research career has focused on a crucial component of vaccine development: creating targets that help the immune system’s T-cells find and kill virus-infected cells. Because COVID-19 is an entirely new virus, the body’s immune system has not been trained to recognize it. Hildebrand’s research discoveries could provide a target for a potential vaccine.

“The body’s T-cells are able to distinguish virus-infected cells from healthy cells and, for the most part, they are able to eliminate infected cells without harming healthy cells,” Hildebrand said. “However, with COVID-19, our T-cells have not been prepared to recognize this coronavirus, and the disease is able to get a foothold before our immune system is able to catch up to it. What we want to do is to prepare our cells in advance, just as the body uses the flu vaccine – it gets your immune system ready to target the flu. Our role is to identify the targets that mark COVID-19, and then steer the T-cells to those targets using a vaccine.”

Hildebrand has been working on this type of target discovery technology for nearly three decades. He successfully discovered a target that allows T-cells to protect against the West Nile Virus, as well as a cancer target that allows T-cells to kill the malignant cells in melanoma. Now his charge is to discover the target for COVID-19.

For that work, the OU Health Sciences Center brings an important resource to the collaboration with Pure MHC: a Biosafety Laboratory-3, one of the safest and most specialized laboratories for working with infectious diseases. The laboratory ensures a high level of protection for research personnel because they will be working with the live virus.

“With OU, we have obtained the actual virus, and we will infect cells and look for the targets on the infected cells,” said Curtis McMurtrey, Ph.D., Director of Immuno-Proteomics for Pure MHC and a graduate of the OU Health Sciences Center. “We will use those targets to either develop a vaccine or to directly target them with something like monoclonal antibodies.”

Because the OU Health Sciences Center and Pure MHC have been working together on similar projects for over 20 years, they are uniquely positioned to quickly develop a target for COVID-19, said Tommy Harlan, founder, chairman and CEO of Emergent Technologies, Inc., the technology commercialization company that manages Pure MHC. Harlan said he founded his company specifically to find and commercialize early-stage discoveries so they can positively affect human health and disease.

“After 20 years of working with Dr. Hildebrand and the OU Health Sciences Center, and through our commercial entity Pure MHC, we are positioned nicely to pursue this discovery very quickly at a time when speed is important,” Harlan said. “It all lines up nicely at a time when society needs help with this devastating disease.”

Such partnerships are key to the university moving its discoveries into the marketplace, said James Tomasek, Ph.D., Vice President for Research at the OU Health Sciences Center. In 1998, the state of Oklahoma passed two state questions that allowed academic research to be transformed into start-up biotech companies. Tomasek, along with the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization, assist researchers in preparing their science for outside licensing and investment.

“The partnership between the OU Health Sciences Center and Pure MHC, a company developed from OU Health Sciences Center technology and housed at University Research Park in Oklahoma City, demonstrates how discoveries can be taken from the lab to the marketplace to address critical healthcare needs, like developing a vaccine for COVID-19,” Tomasek said.