Researchers receive $11.3 million to seek universal flu vaccine

News Release

April 4, 2018
For immediate release

Researchers receive $11.3 million to seek universal flu vaccine

Gift of San Francisco-based Open Philanthropy Project will help the Institute for Protein Design to create new proteins.

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The Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington School of Medicine has been awarded $11.3 million from the Open Philanthropy Project to support the institute’s technological revolution in protein design and support its work on the development of a universal flu vaccine.

It is the San Francisco-based organization's first scientific investment in UW Medicine, and first in the Seattle area, and one of its largest scientific awards to date.

The gift comes in two parts:

  • $5.6 million to refine and advance Rosetta, the software platform for protein design originally developed at UW
  • $5.7 million for the institute’s program to develop a universal flu vaccine

picture of protein designer at UW Medicine
Researchers use a program called Rosetta to design proteins. Photo by UW Medicine 

“We’re excited to help move science forward in ways not seen before with proteins, which are essential to life. This grant recognizes that UW Medicine is at the forefront of unlocking the keys to the use of proteins in medical settings,” said Chris Somerville, a program officer for scientific research at the Open Philanthropy Project. “The universal flu vaccine is a tough nut to crack, but David Baker has shown the ability to pioneer life-changing scientific research. It’s exciting that whether a universal flu vaccine is developed or not, this gift will build techniques and technologies that will advance science and have a huge variety of implications in medicine and industry.

Proteins are the workhorses of all living creatures, fulfilling the instructions of DNA. Existing proteins are the products of billions of years of evolution and carry out all the important functions in our body—digesting food, building tissue, transporting oxygen through the bloodstream, dividing cells, firing neurons, and powering muscles.

“This gift is speeding up a technological revolution in how we design proteins. Our team can now custom design proteins from scratch, creating entirely novel molecules that can be used for new treatments, new diagnostics and new biomaterials,” said David Baker, the institute’s director as well as a UW professor of biochemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. 

Protein design with Rosetta

The gift will accelerate the institute’s efforts to advance protein design on computers with the Rosetta software originally developed in Baker’s lab. Baker said the gift will transform’s the institute’s ability to design proteins on computers, test them by creating the actual proteins in the lab, and then repeat the process at an enormous scale. “By speeding up this cycle of design, building and testing, we will be able to systematically improve protein design methods,” Baker said.

The results and new Rosetta software will be shared with the scientific community through the Rosetta Commons. The Rosetta Commons is a collaboration founded by  Baker with almost 100 developers from 23 universities and laboratories who regularly contribute and share the Rosetta source code, currently over 3 million lines.

This project is in collaboration with Frank DiMaio, UW assistant professor of biochemistry.

Universal flu vaccine

Current flu vaccines are intended to protect only against currently circulating strains, requiring the vaccines to be reformulated every year as the virus mutates, and are only partially protective. With Open Philanthropy Project support, Baker and his collaborators, Neil King and David Veesler, both UW assistant professors of biochemistry, will lead an effort to design universal flu vaccine candidates that provide durable protection against multiple virus strains, including strains that have the potential to cause pandemic outbreaks.

The vaccine candidates will be based on the self-assembling protein nanoparticle technology Baker and King have developed. To ensure that the vaccine candidates are thoroughly and efficiently tested, Baker and King will work in close collaboration with the groups of Dr. Barney Graham and Dr. Masaru Kanekiyo at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. 

The goal is to design a nanoparticle vaccine that can trigger an effective immune response to many existing flu strains as well as new strains that might appear in the future. Researchers hope such a universal vaccine might need to be administered no more than every five years, ending the need for annual flu vaccinations.

About the Institute for Protein Design

The Institute for Protein Design, founded in 2012 at UW Medicine in Seattle, is a research center that creates custom-designed proteins to improve human health and address 21st-century challenges in medicine, energy, industry and technology. In the human body, proteins are chains of amino acids directed by genes to perform essential life functions in every cell including thosein the brain, muscles and internal organs. Proteins also have implications for designs of new materials outside of the human body such as new kinds of fibers. The institute’s team of 120 faculty, staff, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students work on designing entirely novel proteins from scratch to create, for example, new, safer and more potent vaccines and therapeutics to prevent or treat serious diseases. The institute has assembled some of the world’s top experts in protein science, computer science, biochemistry, biological structure, pharmacology, immunology and other basic sciences, as well as clinical medicine.

About the Open Philanthropy Project

The Open Philanthropy Project identifies outstanding giving opportunities, makes grants, follows the results, and publishes its findings. Its main funders are Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana.

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