Researchers with the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and other institutions have been awarded $12 million in funding to help accelerate society’s response to emerging pathogens by improving X-ray science technology and processes.
SLAC’s 2-mile-long particle accelerator is the lab’s backbone. Once the scene of major discoveries in particle physics, today it generates the world’s brightest X-rays for their revolutionary X-ray laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). In biology, X-rays reveal how proteins – one of the key molecules of life– function in our bodies and in nature. This research has already contributed to the development of medications for melanoma, flu and HIV and is aiding the fight against COVID-19, Ebola, high blood pressure and other ills.
The SLAC team will use the funding to develop new technologies to help scientists better understand biomolecular interactions that lead to pathogenesis; accelerate development of new drugs, vaccines, and therapeutics; and apply machine-learning approaches that streamline complex biomolecular research processes.
The award is part of the DOE’s Biopreparedness Research Virtual Environment (BRaVE) initiative, which will support national preparedness for future pathogens and diseases. In total, the DOE announced about $112 million in funding for 10 research projects.
The SLAC team will be led by Aina Cohen, division head of Structural Molecular Biology at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). Partner institutions include the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, and UC Merced, among others.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, SSRL supported 49 COVID-related projects, leading to multiple therapeutics in clinical trials. While the response to COVID-19 led to life-saving vaccines and treatments at an unprecedented pace, over a million people died in the U.S. before the majority of these were distributed. To prevent widespread illness from future diseases, the researchers want society to be able to respond 10 times faster to outbreaks.
Additionally, they plan to fully automate a processes at SSRL called macromolecular crystallography. Macromolecular crystallography is a key technique that allows scientists to map a virus’s biological structures and antibody-antigen and protein-compound interactions. The team will also identify critical molecules that could help develop viral inhibitors. As part of this effort, a second technique called X-ray absorption spectroscopy will be used at SSRL to screen molecules for interactions with metal-containing viral structures. All of these goals together will expedite drug design for a larger community and target a wider range of pathogens.
BRaVE builds on the DOE’s National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory (NVBL) that contributed to the fight against COVID-19, the DOE said.