Professor Sapna Sarupria joins new NSF funded research team to reduce reliance on vaccine cold chain

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (10/01/2021)—A multi-institutional team of scientists which includes professor Sapna Sarupria of the Department of Chemistry has been awarded the NSF’s DMREF (Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future) award. The DMREF program supports the building of fundamental knowledge that can aid in the development of materials with specific properties. The program participates in the Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness that aims to speed up the design, discovery, and development of materials that can be applied across a range of priorities including defense, health, and clean energy. Sarupria will collaborate with professors Caryn Heldt (department of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University, and Sarah Perry (department of chemical engineering at University of Massachusetts Amherst) on the research.

Titled “Predicting Molecular Interactions to Stabilize Viral Therapies,” the project aims to design robust vaccines formulations that are not dependent on a cold chain, and will be supported by an award amount over $500,000. Commenting on the award, Sarupria says, “It is a fantastic example of fundamental science leading to technological advances. Understanding how small molecules affect the stability of viruses is really only possible through advances in both simulations and experiments. I cannot imagine a better team than this one to achieve these advances. The fact that our work can improve the accessibility of vaccines to the world is extremely motivating to me.”

Novel approach to tackling the vaccine cold chain

Vaccine production, and its storage and distribution is dependent on a reliable cold chain. However, maintaining such a network of freezers and refrigerators that can preserve the formulation at the optimal temperature from the point of manufacture all the way through its administration can pose a challenge. Unreliable power supply, and other breakdowns that affect the optimal temperature can result in vaccine deterioration.

Although excipients have been explored for the long term stabilization of vaccines to reduce reliability on a cold chain, there are a couple of key challenges that affect the approach: a lack of generalizability and a lack of understanding of the actual mechanism of stabilization. Existing observations suggest that the stability of viruses and other proteins is related to the interaction of excipients with water. However, published work in the area has been mostly empirical and experimental. Besides, the complexity of the interaction between excipient and virus means traditional tools are inadequate to clarify how the molecular structure of excipients impacts the structure of water, and therefore the stability of the vaccine.

The DMREF project led by Sarupria will address these challenges by using a combination of experiments, molecular dynamics simulation, and machine learning to identify the key molecular features of excipients that lend stability to the vaccine formulation. Experimental measurements of excipient-virus interactions will be put through a computational scheme to design stabilizing formulations. The use of machine learning to understand, recognize, and predict the interactions can lead to the design of complex excipient-based stabilizing formulations that can reduce or eliminate the need for a cold chain.   

The project dovetails with Sarupria’s research which focuses on surface-driven phenomena. Her particular expertise lies in developing novel sampling techniques in molecular simulations to advance the understanding of condensed matter, specifically phenomena occurring in water.

Sarupria is excited about the unique identity of this collaboration: “Caryn and Sarah are not only incredible professors and scientists, but they are also inspiring collaborators. I hope this all-female PI team will inspire other scientists in many ways – from realizing that women can lead the way to normalizing all-women teams! I also think this will bring a unique and exciting dimension to mentoring of graduate students and postdocs. Caryn and Sarah are both awesome mentors, and I am excited that all our students will have the opportunity of being mentored by three scientists, rather than have one advisor!”

Besides the scientific and technological outcomes tied to the project, the scientists hope to achieve educational goals that will have a broad transformative impact. During the course of the research, Sarupria, Heldt, and Perry will engage with students at high schools and community colleges to expose them to science and its applications at the graduate level. The intent is to encourage interest in careers in science and engineering, which is in alignment with one of the DMREF program goals to create a workforce with expertise in materials science and engineering.