What do researchers do when stuck abroad? Work on a COVID-19 vaccine

When Gurudeeban Selvaraj and Satyavani Kaliamurthi came to Canada in 2020, they had no idea they would be developing a vaccine for the pandemic of the millennium.

When Gurudeeban Selvaraj and Satyavani Kaliamurthi came to Canada in 2019, they had no idea they would be creating both a preventative vaccine and a curing drug to address the millennium’s biggest pandemic.

As Mitacs Globalink Research Award fellows, Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi intended to study in Canada for four months and return home to China in April 2020. However, with the onset of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders, they found themselves remaining in Canada for an extended period, and their work pivoting from researching lung and cervical cancer to developing a solution for Coronavirus.

In the early stages of the global lockdown, travel restrictions to China left Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi stranded far from home.

“In the month of March 2020, there was sudden lockdown around the world, including Montréal. As an academic visitor, I was both confused and afraid of the situation. Canada and China’s borders were closed, and my internship was set to complete in April 2020,” says Selvaraj.

As matters abroad became worse, the two researchers discussed alternate solutions regarding their initial plans. In a turn of events, both Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi were granted an extension by Mitacs to pursue their research and stay in Montréal. However, due to Canada’s social distancing measures, Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi were forced to conduct most of their research from home. Fortunately, the two researchers conduct computational research and development of drugs and vaccines, while partners in China conduct the laboratory experiments.

“Working from home is feasible as most of our computational work is carried out at remote sites. Analysis and visualization of our sophisticated modeling results can be performed with a laptop. We access our software and run our simulations on the CERMM computing clusters and at the Compute Canada advanced research computing facilities,” says Kaliamurthi.

Their Globalink Research Award fellowships from Mitacs enabled them to study at the Centre for Research in Molecular Modeling (CERMM) at Concordia University in Montréal, Quebec as part of a developing international partnership with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences – Computational Life Sciences, Henan University of Technology, China.

Journey towards a COVID-19 vaccine

On a daily basis, Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi’s work involves virtual screening and modeling, applied artificial intelligence (AI), and large-scale molecular simulations. Together, they have virtual meetings and work on their research as a team with the help of Professor Peslherbe.

“This project is the first drug and vaccine development research targeting an ongoing disease I’ve participated in,” says Peslherbe. “This is an area of research we have been strengthening in my group. We’ve been in computational chemistry for over 20 years, and more and more we’ve been pivoting to biological and biomedical applications. Research on coronaviruses is a line of research that I expect to intensify in the coming months.”

Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi also utilize AI and reverse vaccinology design to accelerate the research process of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This vaccine will enable us to develop a long-lasting immune response independent of age and gender,” says Kaliamurthi.

The project primarily focuses on a comprehensive understanding of the virus’s main enzyme, which has been reported to play a significant role in its replication in the human body. Which means that this specific enzyme allows the virus to multiply and advance quickly. By using a new methodology that includes AI and structural modeling of the virus, Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi work together to create a reliable vaccine.

Differing research approaches for same challenges

Although Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi both work to develop an affordable and accessible COVID-19 vaccine and medication, they use different research methods. Selvaraj screens potential candidate drugs for targeting the virus’s main protease by using molecular simulations, while Kaliamurthi focuses on reverse vaccine engineering to identify the structural aspects of the virus’s replication processes.

“The new drug design and applied artificial-intelligence approaches taken in this project are anticipated to stimulate the rapid and cost-effective development of alternative new drugs. And an equally importantly goal is to identify drugs that can be repurposed to fight COVID-19,” says Selvaraj.

Traditionally, scientists use an entire virus to immunize. Reverse vaccinology provides an alternate scientific method where researchers exploit the virus’s structural information to produce a vaccine.

“Compared to conventional vaccinology, reverse vaccinology produces vaccines that are highly effectual, timely and cost-effective. The project is anticipated to open new avenues in vaccine development against the unprecedented SARS-CoV-2 virus,” says Kaliamurthi.

Using her background in cervical cancer research, Kaliamurthi was able to easily adapt to vaccine research on COVID-19 because of the similar nature to her previous vaccine research for Cervix Papilloma, an infection that can change cervix cells to pre-cervical cancer cells. Similarly, Selvaraj’s previous research in a new drug design for lung cancer and respiratory conditions helped him in his COVID-19 drug design and development research.

Given the current knowledge of COVID-19, it is important to diversify research initiatives as much as possible to make use of all the resources available to tackle the virus.

A silver lining

The COVID-19 pandemic has motivated Selvaraj and Kaliamurthi to use their knowledge and skills to develop solutions to a new challenge; and their love of science and skills has given them motivation and the requisite knowledge to help with this global crisis.

“My mother has always encouraged me to focus on science and history subjects because both subjects are highly mingled with heritage, habits, and living environments,” says Kaliamurthi.

With their combined efforts, tackling the pandemic comes from a deeply personal place that further accelerates their determination, perseverance, and propensity towards innovation.

“My passion for biomedical research, encouragement from my professors, support from my friends and my wife, and my social responsibility as a scientific person all motivated me to conduct COVID research,” says Selvaraj.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, and the Government of Saskatchewan for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.​

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