Calling All Scientists to Fight the Next Pandemic

A portrait of Nevan Klogan
UCSF QBI director Nevan Krogan has been awarded France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honor, for forming an international research collaboration to study SARS-CoV-2 early in the pandemic. Photo: Noah Berger

Dr Nevin Krogan, not too small. No, Krogan’s ideas are big — like his global mobilization of forces to fight a deadly virus in early 2020. Two years later, his team at UCSF’s Quantitative Biosciences Institute (QBI) was awarded a $67.5 million grant, the largest ever awarded to UCSF by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Used to unite scientists and the biomedical industry to accelerate treatment against the world’s deadliest disease, cancer. It seemed like a job he was born to do.

Why do you think QBI was chosen to meet this great challenge?

We are connectors. We connect diverse institutions at UCSF, across the United States and around the world. We connect government agencies with scientists. We connect scientists and non-scientists.

Is that unique?

incredible. Science is often siled, and so are scientists. If you look at UCSF, there’s a cancer center, a neurodegeneration center, etc. But QBI shows what happens when you bring together scientists from different disciplines and when you use technology that is not related to disease to facilitate these connections. This is where the big breakthrough happens.

For example?

When a pandemic hit, we immediately looked at our global map and said, “Who can we work with?” One of the good microbiology departments. We turn to them, and off we go.

That’s unusual?

Yes. We can move fast because we’ve built this global network.Thank God we have a link with the Pasteur Institute because they grow the virus in BSL-3 [biosafety level 3 laboratory] Early stage of the epidemic. We didn’t have it until later in San Francisco, and it was critical to research.

All the work we’ve done, and the funding from the NIH — none of this would have happened if we hadn’t been laying the track with the Institut Pasteur before the pandemic.

It seems that making a connection is easy for you. Is it a personality trait?

I think so. In science, my job is to make connections between proteins. When QBI came to fruition, I hired Jacqueline Fabius as Chief Operating Officer. She’s not a scientist; she works for the United Nations. People said to me, “What? The United Nations?” I said, “We need someone who can help foster relationships around the world.”

People are throwing all obstacles out the window during the pandemic – look at how fast the world is moving. “

Dr Nevin Krogan

How did these connections help early in the pandemic?

In January 2020, we were the first team in the world to clone all the genes of SARS-CoV-2, about 30 of them. We distributed them to more than 400 laboratories in 40 countries within weeks, which helped speed up research on SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus.

Next, we looked at which human proteins came into contact with viral proteins, because viruses need our proteins to survive, replicate and infect us. We identified approximately 300 proteins out of 20,000 human proteins hijacked by the virus.

Then, under the leadership of the QBI investigator Kevin Shawkat and Brian Schott, we worked hard to find drugs that were already in clinical trials targeting these proteins. We identified a whole bunch, but two stood out: zotatifin and plitidepsin. Both are now in clinical trials for the treatment of COVID-19. By the way, they are anticancer drugs.

Does this surprise you?

No, it doesn’t, because it’s back to science in isolation. When you look at disease domains, you see commonalities. SARS-CoV-2 hijacks the same genes that are mutated in cancer. The autism gene hijacked by Zika virus is the same. This makes sense.

The NIH grant covers several deadly virus families — including Zika, measles, hemorrhagic fever and Ebola — that all have pandemic potential. Will your team develop a cure?

Yes. During our work on COVID, we have developed international partnerships between more than 300 laboratories. We used this network to include virologists with expertise in these diseases in London, New York and Paris. Half of the 43 labs funded are from QBI and the other half are located around the world.

Will this project revolutionize traditional drug development?

Back in silo, I believe this will force scholars to think more about how to translate their discoveries into treatments. I hope this work is revolutionary and will show us how to use our tools more efficiently for drug discovery and show us all the value of collaboration between academia and industry. This will have far-reaching implications than just targeting SARS-CoV-2. During the pandemic, many people realized the value of building relationships with pharmaceutical companies.

It wasn’t friendly before COVID?

Twenty years ago, not so much. People are throwing all obstacles out the window during a pandemic – look at how fast the world is moving. More than three years ago, we didn’t even know about COVID. Now, we have a vaccine. We have drugs. This is unheard of in the biomedical community. Typically, this takes decades. That’s because everyone is collaborating — scientists, universities, pharmaceutical companies.

Now, as the dust settles — if this pandemic is ever being dusted — the question is: Can we learn from these lessons? Why don’t we study all diseases like this? Breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s?

what do you think?

The vision existed before 2020. The pandemic is a great tragedy. This is also a huge opportunity that we will always take advantage of. I truly believe that in a few decades we will have many more treatments for diseases because of the pandemic.

Wow. that is because…?

We learned a lot. The challenge is to ensure that we implement the lessons for the future. We are enough. I believe that, ironically, the pandemic will save more lives than it cost in the long run.

These are big words.

They are big words. We’ll see if they’re real.

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