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Research

Grant arms UNC-Chapel Hill with technology to accelerate COVID-19 research

A $433,000 grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will provide new laboratory equipment for Carolina's Baric Lab, which is on the forefront of developing COVID-19 treatments.

Ralph Baric speaks with Kenda Gully in the lab.
An archive photo of Ralph Baric talking with Kendra Gully, a containment research specialist, at the Baric Lab. (Photo from UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health)

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently awarded a $433,000 grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for laboratory equipment that will accelerate research to address the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially saving lives.

The equipment will go to the lab of Ralph Baric, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Researchers in the Baric Lab are on the forefront of developing COVID-19 treatments. This grant represents a new collaboration between the West Coast philanthropic organization CZI and UNC-Chapel Hill in search of a global solution to the pandemic.

The grant covers the purchase of a “liquid handler” — a robotic arm that can pipette fluids much more quickly and accurately than humans can — and supporting instruments, including another robot that detects active virus particles in samples and a machine to sequence RNA. Together, these tools increase the rate of testing compounds by 20-fold.

Ramping up testing speeds development of effective treatment. When dealing with rapidly spreading disease, Baric noted, that speed saves lives.

“This wonderful example of philanthropy in the midst of an expanding pandemic demonstrates the importance of getting people involved at all levels,” said Baric. “It’s a global pandemic that has touched us all, and CZI is giving back to global communities. I thank them deeply and hope they continue to support both basic and applied research into COVID-19. Not only is the research team benefitting from this gift directly, but we’ve been able to collaborate with others that CZI has supported. For us, it’s a true game-changer.”

Researchers at the Baric Lab aided in preclinical trials of the groundbreaking antiviral drug remdesivir, which speeds recovery from COVID-19. This grant from CZI will drastically increase the capacity of the lab to conduct a large volume of assays, which detect the presence of a virus or antibodies in a sample, to test the effectiveness of other potential drugs, therapeutics and vaccines.

“This investment from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will accelerate the work of Dr. Baric and his team in testing the most promising COVID-19 treatments,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson, the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Genetics. “UNC-Chapel Hill’s researchers, scientists and students have prioritized the discovery of solutions to the pandemic, and it’s partnerships like this that will enable us to truly make a difference.”

CZI is a philanthropic organization founded by Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg in 2015 to find new ways to leverage technology, community-driven solutions and collaboration to accelerate progress in science, education, and justice and opportunity. As the pandemic continues to impact the globe, CZI is helping fight this virus by supporting increased access to testing, genomic sequencing, research and more.

“This equipment is going to make it easier for us to do the experiments necessary to verify that the vaccines and therapeutics generated by others are efficacious and safe, and it will ultimately save hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Rachel Graham, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School.

Baric noted that the lab had previously turned away multiple research opportunities because it did not have enough capacity to take them on. Taking notice of the lab’s work, CZI moved quickly to provide equipment that will improve the University’s ability to work with pharmaceutical companies and foundations on drug development and vaccine trials.

“CZI is committed to supporting science and technology so researchers can make discoveries faster — and this work is more urgent than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CZI Head of Science Cori Bargmann. “The Baric Lab’s expertise in coronaviruses, coupled with the team’s progress in antiviral testing, made this an important grant to help speed the development of COVID-19 treatments.”

Experience on the front lines of the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak pushed Baric to explore coronavirus treatments before a virus emerges and people start dying. Baric also works with the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Discovery Initiative, an open-science organization hosted at Carolina that is working to create broad-spectrum drugs to combat viruses that have yet to emerge. By meeting the lab’s crucial need, this grant will build on the proactive approach and lead to more therapies when they are needed most.

“The Baric Lab is racing against time to find effective treatments to stop deaths from the pandemic coronavirus,” said Barbara K. Rimer, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the Gillings School. “This exciting grant from CZI will allow researchers at the lab to achieve even more and, potentially, save many lives. We are so grateful to CZI for their commitment to advance science.”

CZI’s grant counts toward the University’s most ambitious fundraising campaign in history, For All Kind: the Campaign for Carolina, launched in October 2017. As of July 2020, the University has raised more than 78% of its goal to reach $4.25 billion by December 2022.