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Oxford-Harrington Rare Disease Scholar Award

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One Discovery with Broad Impact: Fighting influenza A virus & COVID-19

Posted on October 19, 2022

Have you heard of “vaccine hesitancy”? It's a term used to describe people's delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines.

There are at least five versions of vaccine hesitancy: vaccine ignorance, vaccine resistance, vaccine complacency, vaccine apathy, and vaccine confidence (where people initially resistant see that the vaccine is working and jump on the bandwagon.)

Of these, vaccine complacency, where people either never become fully vaccinated or, more commonly, stop maintaining vaccinations, is arguably the most dangerous to the health of humanity — and we're seeing it now, in varying degrees and locations, in regards to COVID-19.

Vaccine complacency makes the public vulnerable due to inadequate population immunity against the virus, and it also increases the risk of development of new mutant strains.

Well, you can probably guess that there is not exactly an atmosphere of complacency in the hallways of Harrington Discovery Institute. Complacency and science don't have much to do with each other.

Even so, one of our Scholar-Innovators just may be the absolute least complacent human person on Earth. That would be Dr. Jeffrey Glenn, Professor of Medicine and Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University, Director of the Center for Hepatitis and Human Liver Tissue Engineering, and a 2018 Harrington Scholar-Innovator, chosen for his work toward developing a single-dose therapeutic to treat all strains of Influenza A virus.

Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, Dr. Glenn had spent years working toward a therapeutic capable of preventing and/or thwarting a pandemic — specifically, an influenza pandemic. They come around about once a century, and we're overdue.

So Dr. Glenn (and probably most other virologists) has long been plenty concerned about the potential for complacency in terms of preparing for an influenza epidemic — because if one was to occur, it could be far more catastrophic than what we've seen with COVID-19.

So for years, much of Dr. Glenn's research has been toward developing a single dose universal therapeutic against influenza A virus, pursuing a variety of strategies aimed at countering the problem of viral resistance. This work, which has the potential for impact on a global scale, is what interested the Harrington Scholar-Innovator award selection committee back in 2017.

With help from Harrington’s Therapeutic Development Center, Dr. Glenn developed a molecule that in mice, a single dose in the nose, even given up to two weeks prior to infection, resulted in a 100% survival rate. In addition, it was shown that a dose administered three days after infection resulted in a full survival rate.

Further, not only do the mice survive, they develop a broad and natural immune response; three months after the first infection, mice will even survive a far stronger viral exposure!

This single dose, preventative therapeutic, able to work against every known strain of influenza virus, was the compound Dr. Glenn's lab was actively advancing toward the clinic. Then came COVID-19. Fortunately, the lab was able to pivot their anti-viral work toward COVID with relative ease.

Shifting their focus from therapeutics designed to treat influenza, to treating COVID-19 was a fairly natural transition, because both of these viruses (and many others) encode critical regulatory signals in the various loops and stems called the RNA secondary structure. This work of Dr. Glenn's is predicated on his deduction that because these RNA secondary structures are highly conserved (relatively unchanged through the eons), then they must be very important; and therefore, a drug that was able to disrupt them could inhibit a virus from developing resistance.

“Because our approach can be applied to any virus of interest, this work could be important for future pandemics, which I can tell you, will occur,” Dr. Glenn says. “As a virologist, I say you never want to bet against a virus.”

By the way, when COVID hit, getting access to testing facilities became more of a challenge everywhere; Harrington Discovery Institute's financial support helped the Glenn Lab pay for these (expensive) critical studies, and also helped them get preferential access to facilities in order to do the studies — which ultimately has helped accelerate the drug development timeline.

“This is my calling, but to have a partner like Harrington Discovery Institute that is in sync with the needs of my project, is fantastic and visionary...and I think the dividends will be paid off tremendously,” Dr. Glenn says. “So I really want to express my sincere gratitude. And it's been wonderful, not only the financial resources, but the cadre of experts that Harrington brings to bear on each project. The Harrington approach is really recognizing all those aspects and helping to accelerate them.”

Related Links:

  • Dr. Glenn’s work was recently featured in Nature.com. Click here to read the full article: Harrington Scholar Developing a Universal Therapeutic that can Prevent and Treat All Strains of Influenza A

About the Scholar

Jeffrey Glenn

Infectious Disease

Jeffrey Glenn, MD, PhD

Stanford University
Harrington Award for Coronavirus

More about Jeffrey Glenn