New $52 million antiviral drug discovery center established by researchers

ATLANTA — With $52 million in federal funding for the next three years, researchers at Emory University and Georgia State University will establish a groundbreaking new drug development center aimed at preventing the next pandemic.

The Antiviral Countermeasures Development Center (AC/DC) is one of nine Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Centers around the country being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The new center at Emory and Georgia State is led and co-founded by researchers with a history of collaborating on successful antiviral drugs, including molnupiravir, which was one of the world’s first antiviral pills approved for use against SARS-CoV-2.

The AC/DC will be directed by George Painter, PhD, professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology at Emory University School of Medicine, CEO of the Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory (DRIVE), and executive director of the Emory Institute for Drug Development, and Richard Plemper, PhD, Distinguished University Professor and director of the Center for Translational Antiviral Research at Georgia State.

The National Institutes of Health announced the funding of the AC/DC and eight other AViDD centers on May 18, noting their mission will be to build a pipeline of antiviral drugs targeting SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses with the potential to cause the next pandemic. The Emory/Georgia State center will receive $52 million to fund the effort over three years.

“The AViDD centers will conduct innovative, multidisciplinary research to develop candidate COVID-19 antivirals, especially those that can be taken in an outpatient setting, as well as antivirals targeting specific viral families with high potential to cause a pandemic in the future,” NIH says in a statement. “Importantly, the centers can draw on the resources of their industry partners to accelerate research, making use of the companies’ chemical libraries and expertise in moving candidates into the product development pipeline.”

The AC/DC will be based in Atlanta — a worldwide medical research hub and home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and have affiliate research partners, including experts in viral pathogens and drug development, across the country and in the Baltic nation of Estonia.

“At the core of this center stands an alliance between Emory and Georgia State,” says Plemper. “We have identified a group of foremost subject experts on viral pathogens and pioneers in new, advanced methodology. This formidable group is a major strength of the center. Drug development literally takes a village, and what we have brought together are leaders in this village who can move things forward.”

“Establishing world-class infrastructures and collaborations to advance the development of therapeutics that address viral diseases of global concern needs to remain a top priority,” says Painter. “Utilizing the expertise and resources of researchers at both Georgia State and Emory will help us advance this important work while further cementing Atlanta as the public health capital of the world.”

The pair worked together most recently on molnupiravir, which was discovered by Painter and his team at Emory prior to becoming one of the world’s first oral medications approved for the treatment of COVID-19. Both have spent their careers developing antiviral drugs to treat a variety of diseases, including those in the myxovirus families, like influenza.

Their previous collaborations have involved drugs to treat respiratory syncytial virus, a major pediatric health threat and a common cause of bronchitis, as well as other paramyxoviruses, which cause mumps and measles.

“The NIH and NIAID have made a game-changing investment in pandemic preparedness and public health,” says Emory University President Gregory L. Fenves. “The Antiviral Countermeasures Development Center will generate breakthrough discoveries and build on the innovations pioneered for decades by Emory scientists and Georgia State colleagues. Georgia has been a leader throughout the pandemic, in medical research, treatment and clinical care, and we will continue to serve at an even higher level through this new center.”

“Our rapidly expanding research enterprise more than doubled expenditures over the last decade, to nearly $200 million, and our aim is to continue that growth as we work to solve the most complex challenges of the 21st century,” Georgia State President M. Brian Blake says. “Partnerships like the AC/DC, which bring together the strengths of two renowned institutions based here in Atlanta, are exactly what is needed to combat major public health threats like those we’ve experienced with COVID-19. This work will be a critical part of fighting the next pandemic.”

About George Painter:

George Painter, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology at Emory University School of Medicine, CEO of the Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory (DRIVE), and executive director of the Emory Institute for Drug Development. Painter has decades of experience in the discovery and development of pharmaceutical agents for the biotechnology and global pharmaceutical sectors. Within three years of its start, DRIVE discovered and licensed an antiviral agent to a major pharmaceutical firm and secured two major federal antiviral drug development contracts. Over the last 30 years, he has played a major role in the discovery, development, and implementation of modern antiviral therapy.

About Richard Plemper:

Richard Plemper, PhD, is a Distinguished University Professor in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University and the founding director of the Georgia State Center for Translational Antiviral Research. A leading expert in respiratory virus biology, Plemper has in the last decade built an antivirals screening and development research program at Georgia State with particular focus on respiratory RNA viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 and the influenza viruses. He has developed orally active antivirals directed against major viral pathogens with pandemic potential. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Plemper has pioneered groundbreaking COVID-19 animal models and contributed to the advance of several therapeutics currently authorized for human use or in clinical testing.

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