5 months ago

Promising lab results in quest to find naturally occurring anti-COVID therapies

There are promising new laboratory results in an award-winning effort to find naturally occurring compounds that are therapeutic against the COVID-19 virus.

So far, 35 of 125 naturally occurring compounds identified computationally at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) to have potential against COVID-19 that have shown computational efficacy are undergoing first-batch testing at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (UTHSC RBL) that’s the next step in the process to becoming a drug.

The 125 candidate compounds were discovered in award-winning computational research by the lab of Dr. Jerome Baudry, the Mrs. Pei-Ling Chan Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

In a partnership between the Baudry Lab and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), the HPE Cray Sentinel supercomputer was employed to winnow the 125 candidates from an initial batch of 50,000 prospective naturally occurring compounds.

“There is very good news on vaccine developments, and it is great, but it is important that we continue working on other pharmaceuticals,” Dr. Baudry says. “It’s a bit like for the flu, where there are vaccines and there are pharmaceuticals, and they work together, not against each other. And what we learned here will be priceless to respond to other similar crises, if and when they show up in the future.”

The computational research relied on some data produced by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which leads an international effort to find therapeutic drugs to fight COVID. The Baudry Lab is involved in those efforts, as well.

“We used some of the ORNL-produced data, and we basically added value to it,” Dr. Baudry says. “Although it is unique in many ways – our focus on natural products, for instance – it is important to note that this project of ours is still integrated into the national COVID-19 research effort.”

In Memphis, the biosafety level 3 rated UTHSC RBL directed by Dr. Colleen Jonsson is testing the candidate compounds for the capacity of the chemicals to kill the virus and/or prevent cell infections, Dr. Baudry says.

“They use live virus infections of living cells grown in the equivalent of Petri dishes,” he says. “The chemicals that will have a good profile can then be tested in animal models using mice.”

This first group will be tested by the RBL collaborators in several doses and assays to ensure statistical accuracy, Dr. Baudry says.

“Those chemicals that do well, if any, will be moved to being tested in animal models,” he says. “If we do not have enough promising test results, we can go to the next batch of chemicals that were predicted computationally to be of interest.”

Dr. Baudry’s research was recently awarded one of five 2020 Hyperion HPC Innovation Excellence Awardsfrom 62 nominations. The award recognizes noteworthy achievements by users of high-performance computing (HPC) including simulation, AI and other advanced analytics, quantum computing and other methods and technologies. Winners were selected by independent judges primarily based on the demonstrated or projected impact of the innovation on science or engineering.

“Hyperion, the award sponsor, is the most respected group of industry experts in HPC,” says Dr. Baudry. “I was very surprised about the award because I didn’t even know that we had been under consideration.”

Nominations come from the HPC industry, so even being nominated is a sign of recognition, he says.

“I was both very happy and very humbled. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” Dr. Baudry says.

“I have received awards and accolades before, but it is certainly the most important recognition of my career so far, because it recognizes a team rather than an individual. And so, it is not only the results we obtained that were recognized, but how they were obtained: in a collaborative and multidisciplinary project that involved science, communication, biology, physics, chemistry and, of course, supercomputers.”

Presented as part of the 2020 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis, the awards recognize HPC-enabled innovations in science, engineering, and data analytics, including both public sector advances in science and public or private sector returns on investment. They showcase HPC accomplishments in various environments such as traditional HPC centers, enterprise data centers and cloud computing platforms, as well as quantum computing. Dr. Baudry says the high degree of professional cooperation in the fight against COVID is notable.

“As terrible as this Covid19 crisis is, how we all came together in research has been incredible,” he says. “In my nearly 25 years of performing and leading scientific research, I have never experienced anything like that.”

The effort is unique for its level of collaboration, he says.

“There are no competitors, only collaborators, and a unique feeling of purpose that is absolutely wonderful,” Dr. Baudry says.

“This may be the most important experience of my professional life. It reminded me of what I read happened during the space exploration of the ’60s. There is nothing we cannot do when we work together.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

13 hours ago

How the Regions Tradition led to Alabama’s star-studded vaccine PSAs

You already know the Regions Tradition’s reputation for competition. It’s the first major on the PGA TOUR Champions schedule in 2021, and it produces millions for charities.

But it’s also the place where things get done. And this year’s focus was intended to save lives.

The Bruno Event Team, which manages the Tradition, and the Alabama Department of Public Health used the annual Celebrity Pro-Am tournament as a stage to create a public awareness campaign encouraging Alabamians to get the COVID vaccine ASAP.

The idea, the pitch and the execution all came together in a week. And when approached, the centerpiece of the project agreed to participate without hesitation.

The centerpiece?

Alabama football coach Nick Saban.

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RELATED: College football’s biggest names turn out for 2021 Regions Tradition Celebrity Pro-Am

“Research told us you don’t use national celebrities,” said Gene Hallman of the Bruno Event Team, which produced the spots. “You use local doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. Or you use local celebrities. And in this state, no one is better known than Coach Saban.”

In fact, according to a Montgomery pollster the Bruno team consulted, there’s no one more respected throughout the state than Saban. John Anzalone told the Wall Street Journal that Saban’s favorability rating is the highest in the state – 77 percent. That means that even Auburn fans who root against him each week still respect him.

Or, as Anzalone told the Wall Street Journal, “He is a God.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health reached out to the Bruno team to create a marketing campaign for the state’s underserved population, intending for the spots to motivate Black, Latino and tribal populations to get the vaccines. The public awareness videos will run on television and radio stations statewide, as well as on social media.

But as the campaign expanded, the goalpost moved. With federal and state grants provided for that specific reason, “we’re going to try to reach a very broad audience – the entire state,” Hallman said. “We’re not hammering people. We just want to provide an education on the science of the vaccine, so people can make an informed decision.”

And, since it’s Alabama, there’s also another lure: the opportunity to pack college football stadiums at 100% capacity next fall if enough people get vaccinated.

It’s not the first time the tournament known as the Regions Tradition proved to be a catalyst for change.

When the Champions Tour first came to Birmingham in 1992, Hallman’s group was called in to help with a very hush-hush operation. They were told an unnamed group of visitors from Europe, interested in bringing business to the U.S., would be coming to town to see what Alabama had to offer. No other information was provided, but they were to be shown a good time.

Only one problem.

The first tournament was held in August, a notoriously bad time for southern hospitality – at least for people used to cooler weather than the notorious sticky, 100-degree days. But, as luck would have it, an unusual cold front swept in at the start of the tournament, providing record low temperatures that created perfect temps for the visitors.

So, the secret entourage spent a week at the tournament, got to meet popular Champions Tour legend Chi Chi Rodriguez, and spent a day touring a large plot of land outside Tuscaloosa, less than an hour away …  land that would eventually become the site of Alabama’s first automotive manufacturing plant.

As for the vaccine spots, once Saban came on board others followed. The list includes an NBA legend, a college conference commissioner, a U.S. Senator and other coaches. All recorded their parts while participating in the Regions Tradition Pro-Am.

“We asked and they answered in two seconds,” Hallman said. “There was no hesitation. We got them all on camera that day.”

(Courtesy of Regions Bank)

13 hours ago

Governor Ivey urges Alabamians not to panic-buy gas

Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday spoke with the U.S. Department of Energy on a call regarding the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, which has caused a shutdown of the pipeline operations.

The pipeline, which is the largest system for refined oil products in the United States, is 5,500 miles long and can carry 3 million barrels of fuel per day between Texas and New York. It is operated by Colonial Pipeline Company, which is headquartered in Georgia.

The pipeline runs through Alabama, as people may remember from a Shelby County leak in 2016 that caused gas shortages in the region. The county is home to the Colonial Pipeline Co. Pelham junction and tank farm.

However, Ivey wants to assure Alabamians that the temporary pipeline shutdown should be resolved in the coming days and that any potential gas shortages have not reached the Yellowhammer State.

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“Please do not fill up your car unless you need to and do not fill multiple containers. Overreacting creates more of a shortage. Please use common sense and patience!” Ivey said in a social media post.

The governor’s spokesperson reiterated Ivey’s message.

“She was assured that the pipeline should be operational in a few days,” said Gina Maiola. “She is urging Alabamians and others to not panic and to use good judgement. A shortage has not reached Alabama at this time, and she reminds us that an overreaction would only lead to that. Be courteous, only fill up if you need to, and do not fill up multiple containers. Governor Ivey urges patience and common sense.”

Public Service Commissioner Jeremy Oden echoed Ivey’s words.

“While the state of Alabama is fortunate to this point to not be suffering from gas shortages, there have still been reports of panic-buying and gas price increases,” he said in a statement. “I echo Governor Ivey’s request that Alabama residents refrain from panic-buying, which would only cause more anxiety in the market. As Colonial has stated publicly they are working vigorously to reestablish service.”

The Colonial Pipeline shutdown comes as the average price of gas in the U.S. has risen from $2.112 per gallon before President Joe Biden was elected to $2.985 per gallon this week.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 hours ago

Vocational center for construction, electric vehicle, aviation technology fields coming to DeKalb County

Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced a $1 million grant to help the Fort Payne Board of Education construct a new vocational center aimed at training students in careers that include construction, electric vehicle and aviation technologies.

The funds come from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs administers the ARC program in Alabama.

The new DeKalb County vocation center will prepare Fort Payne high school students and adults for the future while helping to meet the needs of Alabama’s workforce in several career fields.

“Alabama is sounding the call for a skilled workforce and the Fort Payne Board of Education is responding to that demand,” Ivey said in a statement. “This program will ensure that students graduating from high school will be ready for rewarding and high-paying jobs, and that employers will be hiring a qualified workforce to move our state forward.”

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RELATED: Guest: Electric vehicles important for Alabama’s automotive industry

The new Building, Electric and Aviation Technology Center will provide students with a rigorous training program in a workplace environment to ready them for careers.

“The path to rewarding careers does not always go through colleges and universities,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell added. “I applaud the Fort Payne Board of Education for offering other options for students who have the same dreams for successful careers but choose a different path to get there.”

The project is supported by Sen. Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro), who chairs the Alabama Space Authority and the legislature’s Aerospace and Defense Caucus.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

15 hours ago

Alabama State Senator Andrew Jones running for reelection

State Senator Andrew Jones (R-Centre) on Tuesday announced he will seek reelection to a second term in the 2022 election cycle.

As a freshman member of the legislature’s upper chamber, Jones currently serves as chair of the Children, Youth, and Human Services Committee.

“We’ve accomplished a lot in the last 2 ½ years,” he stated. “I ran for the State Senate because I had seen first-hand as a business owner and farmer how government impacts hardworking Alabamians. I have worked hard to be the people’s voice in the Alabama Senate and bring much-needed resources back to the people of Etowah, Cherokee, and DeKalb.”

Jones will kickoff his reelection campaign at respective events in Etowah and Cherokee Counties on May 25 and June 3.

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Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed (R-Jasper) offered his support for Jones’ reelection bid.

“Senator Jones has quickly learned to navigate the ins and outs of the Alabama Senate. He is known by his colleagues as a capable and effective Senator who will do whatever it takes to fight for his district. Andrew is not afraid to take bold, decisive action to meet the challenges our state faces,” Reed said.

Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) echoed Reed’s comments.

“Andrew has been a key voice in our Republican caucus for conservatives policies to improve the lives of everyday Alabamians,” Scofield commented. “Senator Jones is a champion for his local folks, but at the same time he has also won the respect of his colleagues. He has the full support of our caucus in his reelection effort.”

Elected in 2018 in his first run for public office, Jones campaigned on economic development, infrastructure, education and protecting Alabama values. Progress has been made, he now says, on all of those fronts.

“During my campaign, I talked about three infrastructure projects in my district. The U.S. 411 expansion project between Etowah and Cherokee Counties is currently underway, which is a $43 million project. We also recently secured $2 million for the engineering design of the I-759 Eastern Connector, and we are working with local leaders on multiple applications for funding for the Southside Bridge project. Last year, that same application made it to the final round,” Jones advised.

The freshman senator also touted a $2.7 million investment at the Etowah County Little Canoe Creek Megasite through the Growing Alabama Tax Credit Program, an investment which was made possible through an amendment that Jones negotiated to prioritize megasite properties over 1000 acres. He has also supported broadband expansion, incentives for small businesses and workforce training efforts in the Senate, as well as education initiatives to expand pre-K, provide teacher raises, and recruit math and science teachers. Additionally, Jones has backed pro-life legislation, election security measures and Second Amendment protection bills.

In the Senate, Jones has also authored legislation to support the military, incentivize adoptions, promote small farm wineries and repeal the grocery tax, among various other causes. Locally, the Republican has led an effort to repeal occupational taxes in five Etowah County municipalities. In 2020, voters approved a local constitutional amendment sponsored by Jones to designate surplus prison food funds for law enforcement purposes, including school resource officers.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

16 hours ago

NFIB survey: Record number of employers have job openings

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) on Tuesday announced that its Small Business Optimism Index rose to 99.8 in April, an increase of 1.6 points from March. While this index has now increased 4.8 points this year, a record 44% of employers reported job openings that could not be filled in the latest month’s survey.

Additionally, 8% cited labor costs as their top business problem and 24% said that labor quality was their top business problem, unchanged from March as the top overall concern.

A net 31% (seasonally adjusted) reported raising compensation in April, while a net 20% plan to raise compensation in the next three months. Increased compensation is being passed on to customers through higher prices, per NFIB.

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This is backed up by the net percent of owners raising average selling prices increasing 10 points to a net 36% (seasonally adjusted), the highest reading since April 1981 when it was 43%. Price hikes were the most frequent in wholesale (62% higher, 3% lower) and retail (46% higher, 6% lower). Seasonally adjusted, a net 36% plan price hikes, the highest reading since July 2008.

“Small business owners are seeing a growth in sales but are stunted by not having enough workers,” stated NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “Finding qualified employees remains the biggest challenge for small businesses and is slowing economic growth. Owners are raising compensation, offering bonuses and benefits to attract the right employees.”

Alabama currently has the lowest unemployment rate in the Southeast and one of the lowest in the nation.

State-specific data is unavailable, but NFIB state director for Alabama Rosemary Elebash said, “Today in Alabama, there are more job postings than there are job applicants, but hopefully Governor Ivey’s decision to end federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits will encourage people to return to the workforce.”

RELATED: Aderholt, Palmer praise Ivey’s decision to opt-out of $300 federal unemployment supplemental

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn