UTEP School of Pharmacy conducts research to develop COVID-19 vaccine


Courtesy of UTEP

Suman Sirimulla, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UTEP, is leading a group of experimental researchers to virtually develop the molecular structure of a protease inhibitor that would target the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Isaiah Ramirez, Staff Reporter

Research is underway at the University of Texas at El Paso to combat and find a vaccine for COVID-19 

The UTEP School of Pharmacy is currently using computational methods to learn more about the COVID-19, or coronavirusThe research is directed by Suman Sirimulla, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences, who is leading a group of researchers from UTEP and the University of New Mexico. 

The focal point of the research is to evolve the molecular structure of a drug that combats the coronavirus. This is very crucial considering the novel coronavirus leads to the respiratory disease COVID-19.

A specific method is using  advanced computers to piece together small molecules in order to create inhibitors of viral proteinsThe inhibitors themselves will bind to the virus’ S-protein. This S-protein, also known as the spike protein, will then be attached to the inhibitor, blocking the spike protein from attaching to and infecting the healthy cells in the body.  

Sirimulla is also developing inhibitors of the novel coronavirus’ main protease, which is considered necessary due to the proteases’ critical role in processing the polyproteins that are translated from the viral RNA 

“The coronavirus targets the respiratory ACE2 and TMPRSS2 enzymes and uses the spike protein to attach itself to them,” said Sirimulla in a press release. “Once the virus gets into the cell it begins to replicate and what we are trying to do is target the virus’ RNA-dependent RNA polymerases enzymes that are involved in replicating the virus.” 

Urgency to develop a vaccine to combat COVID-19 is of high importance, which is why Sirimulla, along with other researchers, feel they can have a vaccine or antiviral drug ready in 15 months to two years. 

Vaccines are created to help develop immunity by imitating an infection, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A collaboration between UTEP and the city of El Paso to conduct research to develop a cure for COVID-19 is unique in that it involves ties to the university. 

“Most of the employees at the city are alumni, some that came out of our clinical laboratory Sciences program,” UTEP President Heather Wilson said. “There was an agreement to collaborate and that’s what we did, and it’s called an interim local agreement.” 

UTEP has also partnered with local health care professionals to test their personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure they are properly protected while working among patients infected with COVID-19. 

To speed up the design process, Sirimulla is screening large qualities of molecules, which are over a billion compounds available to synthesize through online chemical libraries 

Virologists at UTEP and other universities can evaluate Sirimulla’s work through procedures in their respective labs.  

Sirimulla earned his P.h.D in medicinal chemistry from UTEP in 2010 and became an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences in July 2016, according to LinkedIn.  

“UTEP faculty members advance discovery of public value,” Wilson said. “We have high expectations for Dr. Sirimulla’s research and look forward to his development of therapies to combat the novel coronavirus infection.” 

To help develop the vaccine and evaluate himself and his work, Sirimulla is enlisting the help of the public. Volunteers who join BOINC@TACC will be able to run Sirimulla’s application on their computers  and help them look through billions of molecules available in online libraries.

As of April 13, there are 300 COVID-19 cases in the city of El Paso with two reported deaths.  

Isaiah Ramirez may be reached at [email protected]