Featured Faculty: Coronavirus Researchers

Real world problems need big solutions. Over 120 researchers are part of the teams at Tel Aviv University working on promising coronavirus solutions.

Prof. Jonathan Gershoni

Department of Cell Research and Immunology, Faculty of Life Sciences
Finding the Coronavirus’ Weakest Spot for Vaccine Development

Professor Gershoni has been granted a patent by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for his innovative vaccine design for the corona family of viruses. The vaccine targets the coronavirus’s Achilles’ heel, its Receptor Binding Motif (RBM), a tiny but critical structure that enables the virus to bind to and infect a target human cell. The smaller the target and the focus of the attack, the greater the effectiveness of the vaccine. The virus takes far-reaching measures to hide its RBM from the human immune system, but the best way to ‘win the war’ is to develop a vaccine that specifically targets the virus’s RBM.

Prof. Gershoni’s team has completed their initial steps toward reconstituting the new SARS CoV2’s RBM. The reconstitution of the new SARS CoV2’s RBM and its use as a basis for a new vaccine is covered by an additional pending patent application, filed by Ramot, TAU’s technology transfer arm, to the USPTO.

Dr. Natalia Freund

Department of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology, Sackler Faculty of Medicine
Identifying Coronavirus Survivor Antibodies for Treatment and Vaccines

Dr. Freund’s research focuses on isolating neutralizing antibodies directly from Israeli survivors of the COVID-19 outbreak. Her premise is that the antibodies developed by these survivors – which are what enabled them to overcome the virus – could be used as three front-line therapeutics for treatment of COVID-19 infected individuals as well as for developing a vaccine.

Dr. Freund and her team have been studying the antibody mechanisms for neutralizing the SARS coronavirus which is a closely related variant to the coronavirus COVID-19. Now they aim to combine this extensive knowledge with a novel methodology for antibody isolation, called single B-cell sorting. This method enables the extraction of antibodies directly from infected human donors, as opposed to other methods that are based on engineered antibodies or on modified animal antibodies. Clinical trials have already shown that antibodies isolated by this method are both safe and effective in eliminating the corresponding pathogens.

Prof. Adi Stern

Department of Cell Research and Immunology, Wise Faculty of Life Sciences Genome
Working Hand-In-Hand with Health Authorities to Reduce Virus Transmission

Prof. Stern’s research rests on the basis that sequences of viruses hold critical information on how viruses spread and how they evolve. In particular, RNA viruses such as the one responsible for COVID-19 evolve very quickly and accumulate many mutations during their evolution and spread. Her lab studies the evolution of RNA viruses and specializes in (a) sequencing genomes of viruses directly from patient samples and (b) performing computational and mathematical analysis of sequences of viruses. They are harnessing their expertise to gain a deeper understanding of the COVID-19 outbreak in Israel by sequencing viruses from a large cohort of COVID-19 patients, and then passing on critical information to policy and decision makers to help control and overcome new infections.

Dr. Ella Sklan

Department of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology, Sackler Faculty of Medicine
Blocking Host Cell Entry and Evasive Tactics of Coronavirus

Dr. Sklan and her team will address COVID-19 using three main strategies:

  1. Preventing viral entry into the host cell: While researchers have already figured out the molecular structure of a key protein that the coronavirus uses to invade human cells, other host factors that might be essential for infection are still unknown. Dr. Sklan and her team will use CRISPR genome editing technology to identify additional host factors and relevant genes that mediate the virus’s entry to the cell.
  2. Viral-Host interactions: Previous studies indicate that pre-treatment with interferon, a protein that activates the immune response and can prevent viral infection, can be effective. However, at later stages the effect of interferon is diminished, most likely due to expression of viral proteins that inhibit this response. Dr. Sklan and her team plan to systematically screen the viral proteins for those inhibiting the immune response. This will allow them to gain a better understanding of how this virus evades its host immune response and might help them identify new targets for the development of novel antiviral approaches.
  3. Characterization of coronavirus respiratory infections in Israel with the aim to sequence samples of patients with respiratory illness admitted to Rabin Medical Center to identify the presence of respiratory pathogens. The goal of this project is to identify epidemiological and clinical characteristics underlying severe cases of COVID-19.
Prof. Eran Bacharach

Department of Cell Research and Immunology, Faculty of Life Sciences</br />Enhancing Cell Autonomous Immunity and Restricting Viral Infection

Prof. Bacharach and his team are focusing on the first line of response of cells to viral infections, namely cell autonomous immunity (also known as intrinsic immunity). This response may vary due to genetic differences among individuals and because of viral manipulations. Most important, this response is targetable by different drugs. Indeed, the lab team is currently experimenting with compounds that enhance cell autonomous immunity and restrict viral infection. The research is a joint effort of three labs at TAU, which encompass expertise in Molecular Virology, Virus-Cell Interactions, and Computational Immunology, in collaboration with TAU-affiliated hospitals.