‘It’s an excellent fit’: New Canada Excellence Research Chair in Antiviral Drug Design builds on U of A’s leadership in pandemic preparedness research

Kalyan Das is a world-leading researcher in cross-disciplinary drug discovery and structural biology, including cryo-EM technology, the latest tool coming to U of A.


Kalyan Das, a world-leading researcher in structural biology, will further enhance the U of A’s leadership in pandemic preparedness as the newly named Canada Excellence Research Chair in Antiviral Drug Design. (Photo: Supplied)

Drug discovery is all about finding a good fit — designing exactly the right drug to slow or stop progression of the disease you are targeting.

To do that, you need to be able to see and understand in precise detail how potential new drugs interact with and block the processes that cause a virus to spread, neurons to degenerate or cancer to metastasize.

Kalyan Das, the newly announced Canada Excellence Research Chair in Antiviral Drug Design, is an expert at doing that. A world leader in structural biology, Das helped develop two drugs against HIV that are used to keep patients with the debilitating virus alive today. He also built from scratch one of the world’s top cryogenic electron microscope (cryo-EM) facilities at the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium.

Das will receive $8 million over the next eight years to continue his work at the University of Alberta, enhancing the university’s leadership in pandemic preparedness research.

“Drug discovery is a multidisciplinary program,” says Das, who will start his new role in January. “It’s best when you have good people coming at it from different angles. I see a lot of potential collaborations at U of A and I think I can be helpful in Alberta at this time.”

“We have multiple investigators and clinician scientists actively involved in pandemic preparedness and antiviral drug discovery and development programs here at the U of A,” says virologist Matthias Götte, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, which Das will join. “The research program in the CERC lab will overlap and synergize with the existing activities, which is certainly a motivation for Kalyan Das to join us.

“In other words, it’s an excellent fit.”

Das will also become a member of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology and Striving for Pandemic Preparedness – The Alberta Research Consortium. The consortium was formed thanks to a $55-million grant from the Alberta government in December 2021 to create a homegrown pipeline for vaccine and antiviral drug development.

That grant paid for a new, state-of-the-art cryo-EM facility for the U of A, only the fourth of its kind in Canada. The technology’s inventors won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and it has since revolutionized the field of structural biology, aiding the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines. The new facility at the U of A will be up and running next year.

Das’ most recent research using cryo-EM is the first to fully illustrate, with step-by-step structural snapshots, how genetic information is copied from DNA to RNA, a process known as “transcription initiation”, a key part of the “central dogma” of molecular biology. The research resulted in a paper published last month in Nature and a video animation showing the steps in the process. It was the fruit of a seven-year collaboration between Das and a former colleague at Rutgers University.

“It was not an easy journey but was really successful in the end at showing how the transcription machine works and how it is regulated,” Das explains.

Das’ Canada Excellence Research Chair program will focus on the replication machinery in viral pathogens that have high epidemic potential, such as coronaviruses, influenza and enteroviruses.

“There are so many diseases with almost no antivirals to treat them,” says Das. “We need to be prepared, and this fundamental understanding can really accelerate the process.”

Das joins two other new recipients of the prestigious national chairs at the U of A: Shinichi Nakagawa, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Open Science and Synthesis in Ecology and Evolution, and Rebecca Hull-Meichle, Canada Excellence Research Chair in the Islet Microenvironment.

The U of A now has seven current or past Canada Excellence Research Chairs, including virologist Michael Houghton, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2020 after coming to the U of A as one of the inaugural chairs in 2010.

Launched in 2008, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program awards world-renowned researchers and their teams up to $8 million over eight years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities.