State, region at forefront of coronavirus research

Although the spread of the novel coronavirus in Colorado shows no signs of abating — Gov. Jared Polis last week enacted a statewide stay-at-home-order through at least April 11 — companies and universities along the Front Range are at the forefront of research into COVID-19. 

While the efforts of companies such as the Aurora-based Greffex Inc. and Englewood-based Aytu BioScience Inc. have grabbed headlines for working on COVID-19 vaccines and tests, respectively, Boulder- and Fort Collins-based companies also are making big strides in coronavirus research.

Jennifer Jones Paton, president and CEO of the Colorado Bioscience Association, said the work being done throughout Colorado is an example of how, even during a catastrophe, the scientific and business communities in the state foster innovation and collaboration. 

“Individuals in our community are such innovators and doers at heart,” Jones Paton said. “We are a very collaborative industry, and our members and our leaders are coming together to try to find a way to work with the state and others to find a solution.”

Research being conducted in the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado includes efforts to develop a vaccine, better test for the coronavirus, create a new large-scale disinfectant, and explore inhalable treatments.

Pfizer Inc., which last year acquired Boulder-based Array BioPharma Inc. for $11.4 billion, recently announced it would work to co-develop a coronavirus vaccine. But it’s unclear whether the Boulder operation, which employs 200 people, will contribute to the project.

But other Boulder companies are embarking on ambitious research projects. Efforts include drives to create a better COVID-19 test and to create a partnership to develop an inhalable treatment. Biodesix Inc., which specializes in lung-cancer diagnostic tests, is teaming up with California-based Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc. (NYSE: BIO) to make a more-accurate COVID-19 test. 

The Biodesix COVID-19 test uses Droplet Digital Polymerase Chain Reaction, or ddPCR, technology, which fractions a single sample into tens of thousands of tiny droplets — each of which functions as its own test tube, effectively turning one sample into thousands of samples. 

The ddPCR technology in the COVID-19 test is the same that Biodesix uses for its lung-cancer tests. Multiple studies from China, including one from the epicenter of the coronavirus in Wuhan, found that ddPCR tests were far more accurate than other COVID-19 tests.

“Biodesix is committed to moving as quickly as possible to bring this COVID-19 test to the public,” Scott Hutton, CEO of Biodesix, said in a news release. “By more quickly and more accurately identifying those who test positive for the virus, individuals can be quarantined or treated as quickly as possible, helping to contain the spread of COVID-19.”

Also in Boulder, KelSie Biotech LLC, which specializes in inhalable aerosol vaccines, is working to team with a biotech firm that’s researching COVID-19 treatments to create an inhalable treatment for the coronavirus. 

Lia Rebits, chief scientific officer at KelSie, said the company in partnership with pharmaceutical companies has gone through successful clinical trials of an inhalable measles vaccine that served as proof of concept for its technology — the ability to take a vaccine and convert it to a form where it can be inhaled into the lungs. 

“The method of vaccination through the lungs is accepted to trigger a strong immune response for respiratory viruses,” Rebits said. 

KelSie’s technology allows it to take a vaccine, dry it, preserve it, and fine-tune it so inhaled droplets reach the deep lungs, said Xuno Gildelmadrid, chief engineer.

A vaccine that can be inhaled could be particularly beneficial in developing nations that lack clean water, electricity and skilled caregivers, Gildelmadrid added, and it could prove essential if the coronavirus recurs or becomes endemic. 

“We’re reaching out (to find a partner) right now,” Gildelmadrid said. “We’re trying to see how this can be applied in the future for an easier mode of vaccination.”

Meanwhile, at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, multiple entities are partnering to tackle different aspects of the coronavirus pandemic. In the school’s Infectious Disease Research Center, scientists received samples of the virus in mid-February as it started to seriously spread outside of China. Since then, the IDRC has been working to inactivate the virus, the first step toward creating a vaccine. 

Once that is accomplished, the inactivated virus will have to be mass-produced before it’s ready for testing. 

The IDRC is equipped with Biosafety level 3 facilities, which enables it to work with maladies such as yellow fever, malaria and plague. It also played a key role in research into the two other major coronavirus outbreaks of the 21st century: the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the 2012 MERS outbreak. 

The IDRC also is working with CSU’s Rapid Prototyping Lab in its Energy Institute to create a new, large-scale disinfectant spray that would kill the coronavirus but be environmentally friendly and safe to humans.

The Rapid Prototyping Lab specializes in creating products for other labs on campus to use in their experiments. Over the past two weeks, it created the equipment the IDRC needs to test the disinfectant. It also pulled in a design firm, the Fort-Collins-based Czero Inc., to create a spraying device for the disinfectant so it can be immediately put to use if testing is successful.

“Innovation is about the larger network you bring together to get stuff done,” said Bryan Willson, executive director of the CSU Energy Institute. “Think about the uncommon collaboration between the IDRC, an engineering lab, and a design firm. That’s what’s really powerful about communities.”

The disinfectant uses a combination of riboflavin, a B vitamin, and UV light to neutralize the virus. Riboflavin has a property that, when activated with certain wavelengths of light, deactivates RNA, one of the nucleic acids essential to all forms of life. The challenge, Willson said, is finding the specific wavelengths that deactivate the RNA of the coronavirus. 

To that end, the IDRC is testing the disinfectant on different surfaces infected with the coronavirus using light delivery mechanisms and timing circuitry created by the Rapid Prototyping Lab. 

Willson said that the riboflavin-based disinfectant could be a good alternative to bleach-based disinfectants because it’s safer to humans, and because it would be low-cost and easy to mass produce. 

The disinfectant would ideally be used in large settings such as auditoriums, stadiums, and schools, Willson said. If testing is successful, Czero will work on a spraying device equipped with an LED light system that would allow the disinfectant to rapidly come into use. 

This is another instance of collaboration pushing forward innovation in Colorado during the fight against the coronavirus. As people shelter in place and many businesses close to the public, the state’s biotech companies and universities remain on the front lines.

“It is inspiring to see how the community has really come together to respond to this crisis,” Jones Paton said.