New UT-Austin research initiative to advance development of biologic therapies

Rylie Lillibridge, Senior News Reporter

A new UT Austin research initiative will provide funding and support for research into vaccinations and treatments for a wide range of diseases.

Texas Biologics is a research effort from the College of Natural Sciences and the Cockrell School of Engineering that focuses on the research and development of biologic therapeutics for illnesses such as infectious diseases, cancer and neurodegeneration.

Therapeutics are “treatments to either alleviate or prevent a disease,” said Emily Cole, the director of strategic research initiatives in the College of Natural Sciences. Biologics are products that come from a natural source, like a human, animal or microorganism, according to the FDA. Other types of biologic therapeutics include antibodies, enzymes and peptides, all of which provide ways for the body to fight off an illness.

One of the viruses that Texas Biologics is working to develop therapeutics for is human metapneumovirus, or hMPV. According to a recently published study by Texas Biologics researchers, the virus causes acute respiratory infections in infants and older adults. Currently, there are no available therapeutics for hMPV.

Research from Jason McLellan’s lab, a professor for molecular biosciences, used antibodies from people naturally infected with hMPV to gain insights into how the immune system responds to the virus, said Scott Rush, a graduate student researcher in the McLellan lab.

“Having all these antibodies that we isolate from these donors, we could have real potential neutralizing antibodies that can be used for therapeutics, or potentially engineer the antibodies that we isolated further to increase their potency as effective therapeutics,” Rush said.

Developing therapeutics for viruses is just one of Texas Biologics research endeavors. The program awarded four pilot grants to support research in topics ranging from pancreatic cancer to the enhancement of epithelial cells that line the body. Cole said the creation of Texas Biologics could help bring awareness to a broader variety of available therapeutics.

“In general, this term ‘biologics’ is starting to be kind of understood more by the general population,” Cole said. “There’s plenty that are out in the marketplace, but maybe patients aren’t aware that they are a biologic therapy.”

The program recently launched a partnership with the Health Transformation Research Institute in Dell Medical School that will allow clinicians and researchers to work together to address critical challenges presented by diseases, Cole said.

“We’re trying to get more therapies into the clinic that are developed here at UT,” Cole said.“Making sure our faculty, researchers and students are supported in their work to develop these new therapies to make those connections to clinicians at Dell (Medical School) in order to get them into clinical trials and ultimately to the patient.”