It's a safe assumption that people know more about viruses and vaccines than a couple of years ago. But while the pandemic has brought viral diseases and the methods we use to fight them to the forefront, experts at the University of Iowa (UI) and Iowa State University (ISU) have long been searching for answers — and developing solutions — to many of the ailments that impact humans and animals.
Many Species, One Health
Across Iowa's academic institutions, teams practice a "One Health" approach that's focused on understanding the connection between human and animal health. In a world where diseases such as COVID-19 can jump from one species to another, close collaboration between veterinary and human medical experts is key to solving problems that can't be contained to one category. The human-animal health research has sprouted a variety of efforts, including the launch of startups such as 3D Health Solutions, which seeks to improve drug development through in vitro testing with multi-species organoids for the veterinary and human pharmaceutical industry.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, demand for testing pushed labs across the world to their limits. Enter the ISU Veterinary Diagnostics Lab, which is accustomed to testing animal samples in great numbers. Whereas human testing labs were maxed out at hundreds of COVID-19 tests per day, the vet lab was able to run thousands of tests daily.
Dr. Patricia Winokur, who led the University of Iowa's trials for the Pfizer and Novavax vaccines, said the university has a long history of successful participation in infectious disease trials because of its clinical expertise and the willingness of many trial participants who hail from throughout the state.
"Our Pfizer trial was one of the very first trials in the country," said Winokur. "[Iowans] were doing it for altruistic purposes to help us understand what we need to do to protect people."
Charting the Future of Vaccines
Meanwhile, an interdisciplinary team at ISU's Nanovaccine Institute is working to revolutionize how we treat and prevent diseases using nanovaccines. Balaji Narasimhan, PhD, an ISU chemical engineer who leads the effort, said that nanovaccines are based on protein particles that exist inside a virus rather than "surface-level" proteins used to develop traditional vaccines. These protein particles send pathogen-like signals to immune cells to prevent diseases. Dr. Narasimhan said the nanovaccine approach brings multiple advantages: it's needle-free, remains stable at room temperature — no cold chain needed — and takes far less time to manufacture. These advantages extend to livestock as well, with nanovaccines providing an effective method of delivering vaccines at scale.
"The future we'd like to create is to develop a vaccine for the next pandemic that could get to you in 60 days instead of 400," said Dr. Narasimhan.
Experts in Iowa are also using nanotechnology to create specialized therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. With nanovaccines and medicines, they're working on developing treatments that target the delivery of very low doses of potent drugs to specific locations in the brain to slow down the progression of neurodegeneration.
UI is home to the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, which works closely with the National Cancer Institute, CDC, the Big 10 Cancer Research Consortium and other institutions to fight the pervasive disease.
"If you look at current cancer immunotherapies being used worldwide, we participated in the research of many of them many years ago," said Dr. George Weiner, center director. "Our research is a vital step in the process, and it allows Iowans to have access to the newest treatments while we learn from them at the same time."
The center is also playing a role in advancing CAR T-cell therapy to treat cancer. Dr. Weiner explained that immune system cells are taken out of the body, genetically modified so they recognize the cancer and then given back to the same patient as a form of immunotherapy that can be incredibly effective. It's just one of many cancer-fighting tools the team is working to advance.
"What we're really focusing on is identifying the right treatment for the right patient at the right time," Weiner said. "While two cancers might look identical under the microscope, they have different genetic makeups and they interact with the immune system in different ways. We really need to figure out that part, and that's why we're developing so many different tools."
Learn more about Iowa's efforts in the ongoing fight against pandemics and other threats to human and animal health at IowaEDA.com/bioscience.