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May 01, 2020 | Tom Ballard

LST’s first statewide and virtual “Beer & Biotech” focused on COVID-19 efforts

Thursday afternoon’s inaugural and virtual statewide “Beer & Biotech” meet-up from Life Science Tennessee (LST) showcased the ways that assets in every grand division of the state are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roughly 45 people joined the one-hour event that featured four speakers:

  • Larry Marnett, Dean of Basic Sciences for the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine;
  • Colleen Jonsson, Director of the Regional Biocontainment Lab at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis;
  • Micholas Smith, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); and
  • Jud Schneider, Chief Technology Officer at Nashville Biosciences.

As LST Executive Director Abby Trotter explained at the beginning of the event, the member organization holds “Beer & Biotech” meet-ups almost every month in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville. In the current environment, however, continuing that tradition was impossible, so a statewide virtual option was a good alternative. It was also a way to showcase how different research-focused organizations are helping address the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re bringing the cultures together of all the different markets,” Trotter said. And, for those who viewed the event, it was rewarding to see how involved the state’s research organizations, both public and private, are in the COVID-19 challenge.

Marnett identified a number of projects at Vanderbilt that he placed in four categories: (1) therapeutics (neutralizing antibodies, small molecule drugs, and mechanisms of response; (2) diagnostics (epitope characterization and novel formats); (3) discovery (novel binding partners and immunotherapy T cell response; and (4) clinical (novel ventilator design and clinical trials for drugs like hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir.

“These are the projects I know about,” Marnett said.

The facility that Jonsson leads is one of 12 regional biocontainment labs across the country that were developed after 9/11. Among the areas the UTHSC team is exploring are understanding which molecules can be repurposed, the best small animal models for testing, optimal ways to decontaminate N95 masks, and the number of times a mask can be decontaminated before it is useless.

“We’re beating the heck out of Summit,” Smith said in reference to the world’s fastest computer that is located at ORNL and its role in conducting millions of screenings on drug compounds to find those that might address the coronavirus. While it was not part of his presentation, the lab’s overall work in the COVID-19 pandemic was captured in this video that ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia showed at a recent meeting of the East Tennessee Economic Council.

Schneider was the last presenter and drew a contrast between the previous examples and the work of Nashville Biosciences.

“We operate more at the macro level,” he said, explaining that the company’s work with commercial clients is underpinned by 12 years of data that comes from BioVU, Vanderbilt’s collection of de-identified DNA samples. The database includes three million Electronic Medical Records, 256,000 germline DNA samples, and 120,000 genotyped subjects.

“You need a large amount of data from a large number of patients to answer these questions,” Schneider said of the solutions sought for COVID-19.

Trotter said that LST plans to hold additional statewide virtual “Beer & Biotech” events in the future.

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