Research: NTU scientists win US$2 million grant to conduct research in COVID-19 drug development

By Sarah Zulkifli, Science Writer, Communications & Outreach

A team of scientists led by LKCMedicine has won a US$2 million (S$2.8 million) competitive grant under a major research programme in the United States to develop drugs for viruses with the potential to cause pandemics, such as the Sars-CoV-2, dengue, and Zika viruses. 

The research to be carried out by the NTU Singapore team is part of the efforts at the Midwest Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Center for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern based in the University of Minnesota, to develop antiviral drugs with a grant by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the US.

The Midwest AViDD is one of nine national centres newly established by the NIAID, part of the US National Institutes of Health, to conduct innovative, multidisciplinary research to develop candidate COVID-19 antivirals, especially those that can be taken in an outpatient setting, as well as antivirals targeting specific viral families with high potential to cause a pandemic in the future.

LKCMedicine Associate Professor Luo Dahai will lead the research programme


Led by LKCMedicine Associate Professor of Infection and Immunity and Provost’s Chair in Medicine Luo Dahai, an expert in structural virology, the Singapore team will leverage NTU’s state-of-the-art molecular and structural biology research platform and facility to identify new antiviral drug targets. Also on the research team is Dr Liew Chong Wai from the NTU Institute of Structural Biology.

A/Prof Luo said, “Part of this grant will be used to enhance our understanding of these viruses, the stages of virus infection, and what we can target to produce better and more effective antibodies. We will do a lot of experiments to identify lead compounds which are sufficiently potent, specific, and safe. The idea is at the end of five years, we will have a few of these promising compounds. We will then work with pharmaceutical companies to bring these into clinical trials." 

Speaking on behalf of the team, A/Prof Luo added, “Even the most experienced experts may not be able to predict when, how, and which virus can cause a pandemic and how long it will last. All these questions are very difficult to predict, and instead of waiting for the pandemics to come, we just have to take these kinds of semi-preventative efforts and study the viruses that are already causing local epidemics.” 

Commenting on the significance of the grant, LKCMedicine Dean and NTU Senior Vice-President (Health & Life Sciences) Professor Joseph Sung said, “NTU Singapore has been playing an important scientific role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and other viral pathogens, with LKCMedicine leading research projects in preclinical studies of antiviral drug discovery both in Singapore and internationally for viruses like the dengue and Zika viruses. This latest grant award is an extension of NTU LKCMedicine’s contributions on this front, and I am confident that our scientists, will do both the university and country proud in this global effort.”

LKCMedicine Vice-Dean (Research) Professor Lim Kah Leong added, “COVID-19 is a warning that we need to be prepared way ahead of future pandemics. With the scale of the National Institutes of Health funding and the expertise covering all essential steps of the antiviral drug discovery process, I believe NTU LKCMedicine’s participation in this global collaborative research effort to develop antiviral drugs targeting at pathogens of pandemic concern will give humanity a good chance to be better prepared for future pandemics.”

The NTU team will be collaborating with the AViDD team led by eminent scientist Professor Reuben Harris to develop small molecule drug candidates, with an aim to bring the most promising drug candidates to the clinical research stage. Prof Harris is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and also Professor and Chair at the University of Texas Health San Antonio.

Such research could pave the way for the development of antiviral drugs for COVID-19 and future pandemics that could be taken in an outpatient setting, said the scientists.