Research expands capabilities in reverse genetics and vaccine development
San Antonio, Texas (July 20, 2020) – Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed) welcomed virologist Luis Martinez-Sobrido, Ph.D. to its roster of leading faculty in February of 2020, just prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Having pioneered several key developments involving influenza (commonly known as the flu), SARS, arenavirus and Zika, Dr. Martinez-Sobrido looks to scale his research at Texas Biomed, where he says access to the biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory and to nonhuman primates will assist in his research aims to develop new vaccines and antivirals against a variety of viruses affecting humans and animals. His research, however, has expanded significantly into studies focused on the SARS-CoV-2 and vaccine development to combat COVID-19, sitting on the Institute’s COVID-19 research team.
Dr. Martinez-Sobrido was the first to develop a live attenuated vaccine (LAV) to combat several strains of the flu in dogs and horses. A LAV changes the virus so that it is still alive but the virus is much less harmful, enabling the body to mount a better immune response with longer protection time. In a widely publicized study, Dr. Martinez-Sobrido used reverse genetic approaches to develop the vaccines, currently licensed and undergoing testing.
Dr. Martinez-Sobrido is widely recognized for his expertise in generating viruses, specifically influenza, arenaviruses, and Zika virus, using plasmid-based reverse genetic approaches. He has several Department of Defense grants aimed at using this technology to develop vaccines for arenaviruses, as well as human influenza. Reverse genetic technologies take DNA or RNA from a virus and clone them into plasmids to generate recombinant viruses. This technology opens the door to study a virus in multiple ways, including understanding factors that control virus entry and exit from cells, replication in cells and gene expression. This also enables research to uncover how a virus causes disease and develop attenuated forms of the viruses for use as LAVs and/or vaccine vectors.
“One of the things we will be working on at Texas Biomed is to develop new vaccines and antivirals for influenza,” Dr. Martinez-Sobrido said. “The current vaccine works, but it’s not 100 percent, so we want to develop a universal vaccine for influenza that can be long-lasting.”
One such study he has begun is to create a live attenuated flu vaccine that is temperature-sensitive. Essentially, he is introducing mutations into the virus that not only make it less harmful but make the virus unable to replicate in the lungs or other key areas in the body that cause serious disease, because the virus is unable to live in the lung environment’s temperature.
In addition to these studies, Dr. Martinez-Sobrido is continuing his work with the New York Influenza Center of Excellence, which is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS) program through the National Institutes of Health. In addition to characterizing the influenza virus, as part of this project, he is working with collaborators to develop a universal flu vaccine with the use of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) or blood proteins that can recognize key pieces of the virus to help a person’s immune system clear infected cells from the system. Studies are underway to test these bNAbs in small animal models and suitable candidates will move into nonhuman primate models.
Dr. Martinez-Sobrido’s expertise in a wide range of viruses and technological approaches fits the scientific scope of Texas Biomed. In addition to the development of reverse genetics techniques for COVID-19 to generate LAVs, Dr. Martinez-Sobrido is working on projects to develop rodent (mice and hamsters) models for COVID-19 that will allow for rapid screening of vaccines and therapeutic compounds. He also serves on two city-wide research teams recently funded by the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics. One study, led by Dr. Dmitri Ivanov with UT Health San Antonio, “aims to identify antiviral compounds either among existing FDA-approved treatments or in vast libraries of drug-like molecules that could effectively combat the ability of the virus to evade our immune defenses,” according to SAPPT. The other study, led by Dr. Yogesh Gupta with UT Health San Antonio aims to determine how the novel coronavirus evades the human immune system. This information could provide insight into the development of innovative drug platforms to fight COVID-19.
“Dr. Martinez-Sobrido builds on our current strengths in molecular virology and viral immunology and adds new areas of investigation through his expertise in the study of influenza, Lassa fever virus, SARS, and Zika,” said Professor Joanne Turner, Ph.D., Vice President for Research at Texas Biomed. “His appointment has added extraordinary capabilities to the Institute’s collaborative team of researchers, and he is now among the 13 new faculty to join the Texas Biomed team in just under three years.”
Dr. Martinez-Sobrido obtained his B.S. in Biological Sciences at Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain in 1994. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Virology and Molecular Biology at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Spain in 2000 and received his post-doctoral training at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York where he was promoted to Research Assistant Professor. In 2008 Dr. Martinez-Sobrido was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Rochester Medical Center in New York and in 2013 became Associate Professor. Dr. Martinez-Sobrido continues as an Adjunct Professor at University of Rochester, Zheijian A&F University (ZAFU) and Yuangzhong University in China, and in the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan in Merida, Mexico.
Dr. Martinez-Sobrido is permanent member of the Virology B study section of the NIH and serve as ad hoc reviewer for several COVID-19 NIH study sections as well as study sections from the Department of Defense. He is also member of the editorial board of over 10 virology journals. Dr. Martinez-Sobrido has published over 154 manuscripts in peer review scientific journals.
Dr. Martinez-Sobrido’s recruitment is supported by a grant from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation. Members of his team from the University of Rochester in New York joining him at Texas Biomed include Chengjin Ye, Ph.D., Jun-Guy Park, Ph.D., Fatai Oladunni, Ph.D., Kevin Chiem, graduate student and Desarey Morales, graduate student.
Texas Biomed is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to advancing health worldwide through innovative biomedical research. The Institute is home to the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) and provides broad services in primate research. SNPRC contributes to a national network of National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) with specialized technologies, capabilities and primate resources, many of which are unique to the SNPRC. The Center also serves investigators around the globe with research and technical procedures for collaborative projects. For more information on Texas Biomed, go to www.TxBiomed.org or for more information on SNPRC, visit www.SNPRC.org.