For the sixth year in a row, Research Day provided a showcase for some of the best and most exciting research The Catholic University of America has to offer. This year’s event, which took place virtually on April 15, featured 78 oral presentations and 100 poster presentations from students, faculty, and staff members. Projects covered a diverse variety of subjects, including economics, education, mental health, biomedical engineering, music, and the saints.
Biology Professor Venigalla Rao gave the day’s keynote address, detailing his team’s work to develop a coronavirus vaccine using CRISPR gene editing technology. Rao has been a faculty member at CatholicU for more than 31 years and was recently appointed director of the University’s new Bacteriophage Medical Research Center, which will advance biomedical technologies using a bacteriophage T4 technology that he developed.
Though his team has been working to integrate genome editing into bacteriophage research in order to design future vaccines and gene therapeutics for several years, they prioritized the development of a COVID vaccine in early 2020.
“What motivated us the most was the distress and suffering the coronavirus was causing in China,” Rao said, noting that many of his past postdoctoral researchers have been from Wuhan.
“As a biologist, it became clear to me that this was a dangerous and highly transmissible virus and that it was only a matter of time before we might face the virus here.”
Beginning in February, Rao began reaching out to head researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, including Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about obtaining genetic materials of the virus to begin work on a vaccine. By March 17, he said, his team had already begun designing a detailed blueprint of what a T4 COVID vaccine would look like. During the lockdown, the team members worked 12 to 14 hours, 7 days a week, pushing as hard as possible to bring their ideas to reality.
The end result, Rao said, is a vaccine that differs greatly from those that are currently available to the public. The T4 vaccine focuses on more proteins within the COVID-19 virus, in order to provide a broader and more robust protection against the virus and its variants. The vaccine’s other benefits are that it is adjuvant-free (with no strong chemicals) and highly stable, possibly even at room temperature. Currently, Rao said, the vaccine is undergoing animal trials before it can transition into phase one human clinical trials.
Rao hopes that the vaccine could be used as a booster vaccine or a Food and Drug Administration approved second-generation vaccine. He believes it could be beneficial in increasing vaccination rates globally.
“Most of the global world is still unvaccinated,” he said. “Platforms such as ours, which can be relatively easily produced and distributed, will be useful in those efforts. We do hope that our vaccine will come on board at the beginning of 2022.”
Rao also spoke about his team’s future plans, which include using the bacteriophage T4 platform to develop additional vaccines and therapies, including a universal flu vaccine that would last for longer than one year and a dual flu and COVID-19 vaccine. Additional projects they are working on include vaccines for Zika and Ebola and gene therapies for sickle cell disease and muscular dystrophy.
Rao thanked the University for its support of the lab’s effort and praised his students, who he called “the engine that runs the research machine.”
“I have graduate, undergraduate students, high school students, and many postdoctoral students and that’s probably the most consequential, most joyful aspect of my work as a scientist, working with the students and seeing them shape their careers,” he said. “That’s the fundamental aspect of my research program.”
University President John Garvey also spoke about the work of students in his Research Day welcoming remarks when he recalled Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to campus.
“He spoke about the noble goals of scholarship and education as especially powerful instruments of hope,” Garvey said. “Our students and our faculty who have worked this year to address many of the world’s problems have done this for us; Their work inspires hope for us all.”
In a live streamed opening address, Provost Aaron Dominguez spoke about CatholicU’s history as a research institution, dating back to its earliest days. He cited groundbreaking professors and alumni dating back to the University’s founding and noted that, in 1901, CatholicU was the first college or university in the U.S. to have an on-campus wind tunnel, which was built by Mechanics Professor Albert F. Zahm.
“Here you see cutting-edge research going on at Catholic University at the very beginning and that’s still going on,” Dominguez said. “I really do think that research is in the DNA of [The] Catholic University of America.”
Dominguez said that the University is currently one of 12 Catholic universities included in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (CCIHE) as a “high research activity” (R2) institution. By increasing funding and investment in high-level research like that of Rao’s team, Dominguez hopes the University can reach the “very high research activity” (R1) classification, which includes less than three percent of educational institutes in the U.S.