Since the arrival of the pandemic, 18 Rockefeller labs have turned their attention to COVID-19 research. While an effective vaccine may be a year or more away, Rockefeller’s research, which involves over 130 scientists working across disciplines, aims to develop urgently needed new approaches to preventing and treating the disease.
The projects underway range from near-term efforts to prevent infection in front-line health care workers and reduce the severity of symptoms in vulnerable populations to longer-term strategies to develop therapeutics and vaccines. They include:
- A collaborative effort with other New York institutions to develop and test the efficacy of administering convalescent plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 to health care workers and populations at high risk.
- Identification and production of specific neutralizing antibodies for prevention and treatment of COVID-19 infection. This effort builds upon a powerful approach pioneered at Rockefeller to develop antibodies that prevent and control HIV infection.
- The development of antibody-like molecules with the potential to neutralize the virus and of drugs that inhibit the activity of enzymes required for viral replication.
- Identification of new targets for treatment based on genomic studies of humans with unusual sensitivity or resistance to infection and of other species that are not susceptible.
The effort brings together Rockefeller experts in infectious disease, immunology, biochemistry, structural biology, and genetics. Among them are immunologist Michel Nussenzweig, who recently developed a technique for producing highly potent antibodies against HIV, and physician-scientist Marina Caskey, who is overseeing the clinical trials of these antibodies for prevention and cure of HIV infection. Now they’re repurposing that technique to fight COVID-19. Meanwhile, Paul Bieniasz and Theodora Hatziioannou, both virologists, are laying the groundwork for the use of convalescent plasma by developing a rapid, straightforward way of determining the level of relevant antibodies in the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients. Charlie Rice, who received the Lasker Award for research that led to the cure of Hepatitis C, is creating high throughput assays to enable development of novel drugs that are tailored to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And Jean-Laurent Casanova, who has pioneered the discovery of human genes that predispose or protect from specific infections, is studying patients with extreme outcomes of COVID-19.
“My colleagues and I at Rockefeller University are so proud to have the Stavros Niarchos Foundation as partners in our battle to develop new ways to prevent and effectively treat infections with this virus,” said Dr. Richard Lifton, the University’s president. “Their incredible support enables us to accelerate our ambitious programs.”
“Rockefeller has moved rapidly to respond to this crisis,” said SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos. “While the University’s response represents a pivot in focus, the new research projects build directly on essential work Rockefeller scientists have been doing for years. This health crisis will have many stages, and Rockefeller has mobilized a scientific response that addresses near-term treatment needs, the longer-term effort to get the virus under control, and the fundamental science questions underlying our ability to avoid future pandemics. SNF is proud to be a longstanding partner to Rockefeller in its pursuit of basic science for the advancement of medicine.”
Dr. Barry Coller, head of The Rockefeller University Hospital, who is leading Rockefeller’s convalescent plasma collaboration with the New York Blood Center, remarked, "This support is allowing our team of scientists to jumpstart vital scientific research that aims to alleviate immediate problems, such as the rising risk of infection among healthcare workers, and to develop novel treatments and vaccines to thwart future outbreaks."
Rockefeller’s efforts on COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 leverage state-of-the-art facilities like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation – David Rockefeller River Campus and build on a deep history of discovery. Scientists at the University have furnished the keys to addressing critical public health challenges in the past, from the discovery of blood types, which enabled safe transfusions, to showing that viruses can cause cancer, to developing the first vaccine for meningitis. In these urgent and unprecedented circumstances, the University continues to adapt to evolving conditions while pursuing a clear vision for the days, weeks, and months to come. SNF has long been focused on improving quality healthcare for all. In addition to its partnership with Rockefeller, SNF is currently working with the Hospital for Special Surgery, Médecins Sans Frontières, and is in the midst of a $400 million health initiative in Greece which includes the construction of three new hospitals, emergency and diagnostic equipment, trauma care training, nursing education, and infectious disease training.
The new grant to Rockefeller is part SNF’s $100 million global relief initiative to help alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic.