By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Since its founding in 1941, Southern Research has become widely recognized as a leader in contract research services in a variety of highly technical industry sectors. On Wednesday, August 13, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) toured Birmingham’s Southern Research Institute (SRI) with SRI President and Chief Executive Officer Arthur J. Tipton, PhD and other SRI executives.
One of the laboratories that Governors Christie and Bentley toured was the High-Throughput Screening (HTS) Center Laboratory. Long time HTS Center Laboratory Director Lucile White led the Governors through the lab.
The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at SRI has twelve senior staff members, including White, who have basic research programs in various aspects of drug discovery. Currently, most of the research in the department is focused in three primary disease areas: cancer, infectious diseases, and CNS/neurological diseases.
Former Director White said that the multi-million dollar HTS Center is able to test up to 100,000 compounds a day and to four million compounds a year.
Much of the work in drug development involves testing a compound against a virus, bacteria, or other pathogen. For decades this has been a slow tedious job performed by lab technicians who pipette a substance to the pathogen.
The current lab manager of the High Throughput Screening Center Lab is Lynn Rasmussen. Rasmussen said that the lab uses three high tech state of the art robots to do the work that lab techs used to do, but they do it much faster and much more precisely, “We like robots because they do the work that people don’t like to do and they don’t get carpal tunnel.”
Lucile White said that the HTS Center is more high tech than what many pharmaceutical companies have. White said, “Rarely do we get the exact drug out of this but this is the starting point.”
One of the robots is inside a special bio-containment box. It works primarily with things that could pose a potential for a bio-hazard such as the West Nile virus. White said that the robots were designed specifically for SRI and the HTS Center.
Gov. Bentley asked about the Ebola Virus. White said that the SRI is working on finding treatments for Ebola with other researchers but all of that lab work is done by great people at a lab in Texas.
CEO Tipton said that SRI is halfway between academia and private industry. SRI works closely with academic institutions, especially the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to advance their research. When something that SRI is working on appears to be a possible cure or treatment SRI brings that to the pharmaceutical companies for the expensive drug trial process.
According to a research paper by Rasmussen, White, et al SRI s able to using frozen virus infected cells as the source of infectious material to overcome the problem of virus instability and validated a cell-based high-throughput screening assay to screen for inhibitors of the virus.
That particular work was done on the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), from the family Paramyxoviridae, which is most often associated with bronchitis and pneumonia, but the methodology has application for a variety of viruses and other pathogens.
According to their web site Southern Research is a self-sustaining contract research organization and an incorporated affiliate of The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). SRI and UAB have a shared belief in the power and potential of collaborative research. Southern Research and UAB have long-standing relationships in areas such as materials engineering, high-performance computing, breast cancer research, glial biology, cystic fibrosis research, and gene therapy.
According to the website much of the research in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at SRI is primarily supported by basic research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, although a significant portion of the research is supported by government and commercial contracts.
Southern Research has discovered more than 20 drugs that have entered clinical trials and seven drugs that have been approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of cancer. No other organization has produced so many. Another seven drug candidates are currently in late-stage preclinical development or have advanced into clinical trials. Among their commercial successes SRI scientists developed and patented the method for manufacturing Methotrexate which is currently used to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.
Following the tour, the two GOP Governors spoke to reporters in SRI’s courtyard. The Alabama Political Reporter was there to cover all of the event.
Gov. Christie also appeared with Gov. Bentley at a fundraiser for the Bentley re-election campaign and attended an event to raise money for the Republican Governor’s Association.
USDA is seeking rural energy grant applications
The deadlines to apply for grants is Feb. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2021. Applications for loan guarantees are accepted year-round.
United States Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Bette Brand on Wednesday invited applications for loan guarantees and grants for renewable energy systems, and to make energy efficiency improvements, conduct energy audits and provide development assistance.
The funding is being provided through the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, which was created under the 2008 Farm Bill and reauthorized under the 2018 Farm Bill. This notice seeks applications for Fiscal Year 2021 funding.
The deadlines to apply for grants is Feb. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2021. Applications for loan guarantees are accepted year-round.
REAP helps agricultural producers and rural small businesses reduce energy costs and consumption by purchasing and installing renewable energy systems and making energy efficiency improvements in their operations.
Eligible systems may derive energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric, ocean, hydrogen, geothermal or renewable biomass (including anaerobic digesters).
USDA encourages applications that will support recommendations made in the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to help improve life in rural America.
Applicants are encouraged to consider projects that provide measurable results in helping rural communities build robust and sustainable economies through strategic investments.
Key strategies include achieving e-Connectivity for rural America, developing the rural economy, harnessing technological innovation, supporting a rural workforce and improving quality of life. For additional information, see the notice in the Federal Register.
Trump says that coronavirus vaccine deliveries will begin within two weeks
Trump said that front-line workers, medical personnel and senior citizens would be the vaccine’s first recipients.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that coronavirus vaccine deliveries will begin as early as next week.
“The whole world is suffering, and we are rounding the curve,” Trump said. “And the vaccines are being delivered next week or the week after.”
Trump made the announcement during a special Thanksgiving holiday message to U.S. troops overseas via teleconference. Trump said that front-line workers, medical personnel and senior citizens would be the vaccine’s first recipients. He also argued that his election opponent, President-elect Joe Biden, should not be given credit for the vaccines, which were developed during the Trump administration.
Trump referred to the vaccines, which were developed and tested in less than ten months as a “medical miracle.”
Regulators at the FDA will review Pfizer’s request for an emergency use authorization for its vaccine developed with BioNTech during a meeting on Dec. 10. The director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research says a decision is expected within weeks, possibly days after that key meeting.
The latest trial data for Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine showed that it was 90 percent effective.
The CDC plans to vote next week on where the distribution of approved vaccines will begin and who will be allowed to get the first vaccines when they become available.
Dr. Celene Gounder, a member of Biden’s COVID Advisory Board, warned against rushing a vaccine to market.
“The single biggest risk of rushing an approval would be Americans’ distrust the vaccine,” Grounder said. “It’s essential people feel confident this is a safe and effective vaccine.”
Moderna said that its vaccine is 94.5 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.
AstraZeneca says its preliminary results showed its vaccine ranged from 62 percent to 90 percent effective depending on the dosage amount given to participants. AstraZeneca is having to launch a second round of global trials to clear up the discrepancies.
Many Americans appear to have ignored CDC warnings to scale back Thanksgiving holiday plans. More than six million Americans flew over the holiday week, raising fears by public health officials that the surge in coronavirus cases we are experiencing now will be followed by a bigger surge in the next three weeks.
As of press time, there have been 62 million diagnosed cases of coronavirus cases in the world, including nearly 13.5 million in the United States, but many cases are mild and go undiagnosed.
A CDC researcher estimates that the real number of infections in the U.S. has topped 53 million since February. More than 1.4 million people have died around the world since the virus first appeared in China late last year. The death toll includes 271,029 Americans and 3,572 Alabamians.
The Iron Bowl is today
Alabama will have to play without head football coach Nick Saban who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Auburn University college football team will play the University of Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday with the game kicking off at 2:30 p.m. Attendance is strictly limited because of COVID-19 restrictions. The game will be televised on CBS stations.
Alabama will have to play without head football coach Nick Saban who has tested positive for the coronavirus and is experiencing mild symptoms. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will coach the Crimson Tide in Saban’s absence. He has a 46-35 record as a head coach at USC and Washington.
Auburn will be coached by Gus Malzahn, who has a 67-33 record as a head coach. He is the fifth winningest coach in Auburn history, trailing only Shug Jordan, Mike Donahue, Pat Dye and now-Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville.
Alabama has a 7-0 record and is currently the No. 1 team in the country in the college football rankings. Auburn is 5-2 but with a win could still win the SEC West with wins in its remaining two games, and if Alabama were to lose another game down the stretch. Alabama is just one game ahead of Texas A&M for first place in the SEC West, but the Tide has the tiebreaker by virtue of having defeated the Aggies in head-to-head competition.
In addition to team honors, there is a lot riding for individual players in today’s game. Alabama redshirt junior quarterback Mac Jones has thrown for 2,426 yards and 18 touchdowns in Alabama’s first seven games. Jones’s strong performance has made him a Heisman contender and has earned him consideration as a possible first-round or high second-round draft pick by the NFL if he were to leave Alabama early.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix has thrown for 1,627 yards and ten touchdowns over seven games.
Alabama and Auburn played their first football game against each other in Lakeview Park in Birmingham on Feb. 22, 1893. The game is called the Iron Bowl because historically the game was played on a neutral site: Birmingham’s historic Legion Field. Birmingham at the time was best known for the iron that was mined there and then made into steel and other metal products.
The game is now played as a home and home series, but the Iron Bowl name has stuck with the rivalry.
Alabama leads the series with 46 wins to Auburn’s 37. There has been one tie. Auburn defeated Alabama 48 to 45 in last year’s high scoring contest.
Vaccines should protect against mutated strains of coronavirus
Public health experts say it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public.
Multiple vaccines for COVID-19 are in clinical trials, and one has already applied for emergency use authorization, but how good will those vaccines be against a mutating coronavirus? A UAB doctor says they’ll do just fine.
Dr. Rachael Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, told reporters earlier this week that there have been small genetic mutations in COVID-19. What researchers are seeing in the virus here is slightly different than what’s seen in the virus in China, she said.
“But luckily the way that these vaccines have been created, specifically the mRNA vaccines, is an area that is the same for all of these viruses,” Lee said, referring to the new type of vaccine known as mRNA, which uses genetic material, rather than a weakened or inactive germ, to trigger an immune response.
The U.S. Food And Drug Administration is to review the drug company Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10. Pfizer’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, as is a vaccine produced by the drug maker Moderna, which is expected to also soon apply for emergency use approval.
“I think that is incredibly good news, that even though we may see some slight mutations, we should have a vaccine that should cover all of those different mutations,” Lee said.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found in a recent study, published in the journal Science, that COVID-19 has mutated in ways that make it spread much more easily, but the mutation may also make it more susceptible to vaccines.
In a separate study, researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that while most vaccines were modeled after an earlier strain of COVID-19, they found no evidence that the vaccines wouldn’t provide the same immunity response for the new, more dominant strain.
“This brings the world one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine to protect people and save lives,” said CSIRO chief executive Dr. Larry Marshall, according to Science Daily.
While it may not be long before vaccines begin to be shipped to states, public health experts warn it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public. Scarce supplies at first will be allocated for those at greatest risk, including health care workers who are regularly exposed to coronavirus patients, and the elderly and ill.
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR last week, urged the public to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing for many more months, as the department works to make the vaccines more widely available.
“Just because the first shots are rolling out doesn’t mean it’s time to stop doing everything we’ve been trying to get people to do for months. It’s not going to be widely available for a little while,” Harris said.