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UW institute developing lifetime flu vaccine gets $45 million award

A universal flu vaccine that immunizes someone for a lifetime. Smart proteins that can identify cancerous cells. Nanomaterial proteins that self-assemble and could be used for solar energy.

These are the kinds of big, tricky problems the UW School of Medicine’s Institute for Protein Design wants to tackle. And it was just awarded $45 million to do so.

The money comes from The Audacious Project, a philanthropic collaborative run through TED that focuses on projects fueling massive change throughout the world. It will be used to hire more engineers, scientists, instructors and tenure-track professors, as well as to support more postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.

David Baker, the UW institute’s director, wants to create a modern-day version of Bell Laboratories, which attracted some of the sharpest world thinkers to help push forward numerous technological advancements used today, from lasers to communications satellites.

Baker said he hopes to “recruit the best and the brightest from around the world at all career stages to join what we are calling the ‘protein design revolution.’”

Proteins, which are large molecules made up of one or more chains of amino acids, are essential to living things because they help the body’s cells and organs function. They also include enzymes and antibodies.

The institute’s researchers use computers to help create proteins from scratch that can do what naturally occurring proteins do — and some things they cannot. Protein design used to be done by tweaking existing proteins or searching for new kinds of naturally occurring proteins.

The ability to create new proteins opens the door to projects like a vaccine that would protect against many strains of the flu, as opposed to the four strains the current seasonal vaccine tries to match up with each year. The institute is already working on that with the National Institutes of Health, but the money awarded Tuesday could help it make it a reality.

“I think we’re probably going to need some additional firepower to get this to true universal, and The Audacious Project is going to let us do that,” said Neil King, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the UW School of Medicine who has been working on the flu vaccine.

What researchers learn from developing the flu vaccine can be applied to many other biomedical problems, King explained, his face lighting up as he sat in an office littered with models of proteins resembling children’s toys. He said cracking the flu vaccine, which is of medium difficulty, could put researchers on a path toward more difficult vaccines, such as for HIV, malaria, hepatitis C and even cancer.

“There needs to be new technology to turn that into something that is robust and that actually works on a routine basis,” King said.

Unlocking that potential is a big part of why The Audacious Project awarded UW the money, Anna Verghese, the project’s executive director, said in a statement.

The institute’s prior work in the field also gave it an edge.

“The Institute for Protein Design has been a long-standing pioneer in computational protein design,” Verghese said. “Now, with a solid blueprint in place and support through The Audacious Project, the Institute for Protein Design will venture to accelerate the pace of discovery, disseminate new protein technology, and fundamentally change how drugs, vaccines, fuels, and new materials are made.”

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