Dr. Block testifies before Pa. House committee on COVID-19
Below is testimony provided by Timothy M. Block, Ph.D., president and co-founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation, Baruch S. Blumberg Institute and Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center, on Sept. 9 at a hearing on COVID-19 held by the Pa. House Majority Policy Committee meeting in Bucks County. A video recording is posted here.
Thank you to the Chair and to the Committee Members for taking such an interest in this crisis, and in what we are doing to try to be helpful.
I am President and Co-Founder of 3 interrelated nonprofit organizations located in Bucks County: The Hepatitis B Foundation, Baruch S. Blumberg Institute and its Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center (abbreviated PABC). In 2006, we purchased what was a closing factory that once employed up to 146 people and located these 3 organizations on that site. This adaptive re-use is now a 14 acre home to a thriving knowledge community of 350 scientists and staff, and, in better times, more than 40 students. All working and learning about science, medical research and entrepreneurship. Because of the pandemic, the high school students are not on site. However, professional scientific staff and post-doctoral fellows have been able to work in the labs, although under space and number restrictions.
Although the Blumberg Institute is dedicated to finding a cure for liver cancer and hepatitis B, and the more than 40 life sciences companies at the PABC, have a range of disease interests, the COVID-19 crisis caused us all to spring in to a special action. We recognize that this is a medical emergency affecting almost everyone and everything we do, and we consider the PABC as a community resource with an ability and responsibility to do what it can to be a part of the solution. By the way, the PABC was there during the recession of 2008, providing a resource for pharma scientists with ideas who lost their jobs. Some of our greatest innovations came from what I call our “recession babies.” The same spirit of responsibility and innovation is being summoned to meet today’s challenge.
I am pleased to report that, less than two weeks ago, when Gov. Wolf announced a new set of grants through Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 Vaccines, Treatments and Therapies program, four of the 23 grants went to researchers at the PABC, totaling about $1.1 million. In fact, I have been awarded one of the grants, which is for work on a potential COVID-19 therapy. Two other Blumberg scientists earned a grant to work on another potential COVID-19 drug, as did one of our formidable PABC-member companies. The fourth grant is to renovate space within our current facility that will be dedicated to COVID-19 work.
So, we get it. We have a role and responsibility. And here is some of what we have been able to do:
- In April 2020, working with public health and infectious disease experts, we drafted an executive summary of actions we believed would be helpful in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the Commonwealth. We indicated where Pennsylvania’s resources could be most effectively deployed.
- In March and April 2020, a PABC member company, Flowmetric, which is now a CLIA Diagnostic lab, validated a COVID-19 antibody test. That test was one of the first, if not the first, available in Bucks County. Working with another PABC member company, Serologix, they tested more than 4,000 people. This included people from our local hospitals and emergency services. During the peak of the crisis, we even had a tent set up in the PABC parking lot to manage testing.
- This month, Flowmetric will begin testing serological samples from Penn State University for COVID-19.
- In April and May, Serologix, quickly developed a method for recovery and production of convalescent plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients and produced more than 260 units for therapeutic use. Nearly 70 patients in Bucks County have been treated with their product, including several at Doylestown Hospital.
- Currently, Serologix is working with scientists from JBS, another PABC member company, and the Blumberg Institute, to develop assays to test blood for SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19. They also are working on methods to extract SARS-CoV-2 material from saliva and urine.
- VIgilon, working with Blumberg scientists, designed and is producing “minibodies,” which are “synthetic” antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, for therapeutic testing.
- Evrys Pharma is testing their Sirtuin inhibitor, which they hypothesized would have, and has been shown to have, broad activity against mutlple viruses, for activity against SARS CoV-2. The drug had good preliminary results and they have received federal and state funding to continue.
- Tiziana Lifesciences, a NASDAQ listed Biotechnology company, is developing innovative inhalation administration of a fully human Anti-IL-6 receptor Monoclonal antibody for treatment of Covid-19. This technology is applicable to SARS, MERS and other pulmonary diseases. Tiziana is also moving forward with Phase 2 clinical trials with Foralumab, a fully human monoclonal antibody, in patients with Crohn’s Disease and Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.
- Aumapharma, another PABC-member company, has obtained thousands of RT-PCR kits to detect SARS-CoV-2, and made them available throughout the Commonwealth.
Importantly, Scientists at the PABC and member companies also are developing new therapies.
- Scientists at the Blumberg Institute are testing a family of drugs we co-discovered for activity against SARS-CoV-2 with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. We will test these drugs because some had activity against OC43, a human coronavirus member of the SARS family, and, as shown by the NIH, activity against SARS CoV-1. One of these drugs is already approved for human use. So, if it is effective for this purpose, theoretically it could be used almost immediately.
- Blumberg scientists Dr. John Kulp and Dr. Usha Viswanathan have used computer modeling to design a new SARS-2 drug, and have shown, in the lab, that it works against the SARS protein. Obviously, it has a long way to go, but we are excited.
- Blumberg scientist Dr. Richard Pestell and his lab have shown that SARS-CoV-2 grows in human cardiac tissue (myocytes) and CCR5 inhibitors may be cardio-protective. This is important because this forms a basis for use of CCR5 inhibitors now in human clinical trials for management of COVID-19, most notably, by a company in which Dr. Pestell was involved, CytoDyn.
- Our education programs have been adapted.
The staffing restrictions created by the COVID-19 crisis have meant that we have had no high school students on our campus since April. This is unfortunate, because we had been hosting Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry for Central Bucks School District students, as well as many other high school students’ research projects. Several of whom have gone on the major national awards and great college experiences. But Dr. John Kulp, our Director of Academic Affairs, could not stand and watch all instruction stop. He is a computer modeler and no stranger to the virtual world. So he and his young colleagues created a really impressive “on line” science class that is half “hands on” – the kids follow at home with science kits we send them – and half at the PABC, with John conducting experiments at the Center guided by the kids at home. The class goes on! He “beta” tested this with a number of high school students this summer and has been working with Central Bucks Schools to see about implementing this in the fall.
So, although things are definitely not as they were, the PABC, the Blumberg institute and the companies and scientists here see it at a responsibility and a challenge to use their skills to be a part of the solution that will get us back to normal.
We want you to known that here in Bucks County there are enormously talented people and this has helped the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center become one of the most successful life sciences incubators in the Nation. We are here in Bucks County and have been working with colleagues across the Commonwealth, and frankly the nation, to do what we can.
Expect a lot.