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CEPI and Houston Methodist Announce Partnership to Leverage AI to Combat Next Global Pandemic

Sep. 8, 2023 - Eden McCleskey

The Houston Methodist Research Institute is partnering with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to leverage cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology to expedite the development of vaccines to combat emerging viral threats.

Known colloquially as "Disease X," the next major epidemic could come from anywhere, but researchers and governments around the world are determined to be more prepared for it than they were for COVID-19.

The CEPI grant will provide up to $4.98 million to a Houston Methodist-led consortium of researchers tasked with designing an AI-powered platform that can quickly create vaccines to fight diseases with pandemic potential.

The team's goal is to identify potential antigenic targets for up to 10 priority virus families with epidemic or pandemic potential. Laboratory-based tests will then be used to verify antigen designs for possible further development.

Jimmy Gollihar, Ph.D., director of the Antibody Discovery and Accelerated Protein Therapeutics (ADAPT) laboratory at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, will helm a consortium of experts from Argonne National Laboratory (University of Chicago), J Craig Venter Institute, La Jolla Institute, The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston.

The team will use machine-learning approaches to identify key protein fragments within viruses, known as epitopes, that are capable of provoking an immune response. UTMB will then validate the immunogenicity of potential vaccine candidates using established preclinical models.

Their initial focus will be on paramyxoviruses, which cause mumps, measles, parainfluenza and Nipah virus; and arenaviruses, which are responsible for a variety of hemorrhagic diseases, including Lassa fever.

If one of these pathogens emerges in the future, the hope is that vaccine developers can quickly respond by selecting the AI-identified epitopes that have already been validated in preclinical models, streamlining the development of future vaccine candidates against Disease X to within 100 days of a virus' detection — CEPI's stated goal.

Epidemiologists believe that a 100-day timeframe would give the world a fighting shot to stop the next pandemic-causing disease in its tracks before it can wreak havoc on the scale of COVID-19.

CEPI's founders (the governments of Norway and India, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome and the World Economic Forum) have pledged $3.5 billion over the next five years to kick start the work necessary to achieve the 100 Days Mission.

The Houston Methodist-led consortium will play a critical role in this effort through the establishment of a Vaccine Library: a globally accessible store of scientific knowledge, data and prototype vaccine candidates against selected viruses from the 25 viral families known to infect humans.

Ultimately, the goal is to transform the vaccine development process with antigen designs that can be taken "off the shelf" and inserted into an appropriate rapid-response vaccine platform within days or weeks, as opposed to months and years.

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Infectious Disease