UTHSC Infectious Disease Researcher Mentors Local High School Student on COVID-19 Vaccine Design Development

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An infectious disease leader at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center is providing his expertise in the research and development of vaccines to a local high school senior.

James Dale, MD

James Dale, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Disease and Gene H. Stollerman Endowed Professor in Medicine in the UTHSC College of Medicine, is mentoring and working with Houston High School student Harshu Pande on the design of a vaccine to prevent Sars-Cov-2 infections. The project is one of 10 selected to receive a $10,000 grant funded through the Be More Fund from the National Society of High School Scholars.

Dr. Dale has dedicated his career to researching Group A streptococcal infections. He has earned a national and international reputation. For more than 36 years, he has received federal funding for his research, which has resulted in the development of the novel StreptAnova® multivalent vaccine, a vaccine designed to prevent Group A streptococcal (GAS) infections. The vaccine is being commercialized jointly by Vaxent, a company founded by Dr. Dale that has recently completed a Phase 1 clinical trial.

Pande, reached out to Dr. Dale to ask if he could work with him in the lab on his vaccine design. “He contacted me by email at the beginning of the pandemic to see if he could work with us in the lab to produce and test his vaccine,” Dr. Dale said. “I was very impressed by what he had done and how well the manuscript was written. He was using sophisticated computational tools involving structural protein design and immunoinformatics to formulate a “designer” vaccine based on the published sequence of the virus.”

Dr. Dale said that these were the same tools that are currently being used by a collaboration of scientists at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville to design and develop complex vaccines against Group A streptococcal infections.

The goal of the vaccine project was to integrate regions of the SARS-Cov-2 spike protein and generate human antibodies that would neutralize the virus and prevent infection.

“This subunit approach differs from current vaccines that use the entire spike protein,” Dr. Dale said. “Harshu designed a synthetic gene to produce the mosaic vaccine protein in bacteria, which is exactly how we make our vaccines.”

Outcomes for the collaboration resulted in uncovering other regions in the spike protein that have the potential to be included in the design of vaccines that could prove effective as immune boosters quickly and safely.

Dr. Dale said mentorship is important for youths interested in pursuing careers in medicine and science.

“I have mentored high school students in the past and many of them have become successful physicians and scientists,” Dr. Dale said. “Early meaningful exposure to science, scientific method, and mentoring is an important determinant of career choices and the future success of young students. We have a national shortage of physician-scientists and they serve an important role in bridging basic scientific discoveries to clinical application and treatments.”