Oklahoman leading charge to find vaccine for COVID-19

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – It’s the biggest problem facing humanity right now, and one Oklahoman is leading the charge to find a solution.

He is using video games that you can play to help in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“All of our research has pivoted completely towards COVID-19 and trying to understand how to take out this virus,” said Rhiju Das.

Das is an Oklahoma School of Science and Math graduate and is a professor of Biophysics at Stanford University in California. 

He is also leading a cutting edge lab that has been working since February on a vaccine for COVID-19.

“The virus itself is like a sophisticated machine and you have to know your enemy if you are going to design a weapon to take it out,” said Das.

The Bartlesville native was recently featured on The PBS NOVA Special “Decoding COVID-19.”

Instead of traditional DNA vaccines that inject a version of the virus into the patient, Das is focusing on RNA vaccines.

He says they can be made much faster, getting to trial in 2 months. The RNA vaccine only injects a partial blue print of COVID-19 into the system.

“The RNA vaccine is supposed to initiate the same antibodies that you would get if you were actually attacked by the virus,” said Das.

But there is a problem with RNA.

Without special construction of the strands, they have a very limited shelf life.

So part of Rhiju’s work is to find a way to reconstruct the RNA in a way to make it shelf stable.

For that,  he is using gamers.

“Crowdsourcing through video games,” said Das.

The Eterna platform that Das and his staff have built allows people all over the planet to help them with permutations on how to fold up the strands of RNA for shipping.

“Solutions that come in from top players, we actually synthesize those molecules in my lab at Stanford and then test and see which one fold up and function in the way that we wanted,” said Das.

Rhiju Das says his fellow Oklahomans and Oklahoma School of Science and Math alums are joining in.

Das graduated from OSSM in ’95.

He then went on to Harvard for undergrad then to Cambridge and Stanford, but he says his high school teachers and education was his foundation.

“Its really the most rigorous scientific program that I’m aware of at the high school level, I knew what DNA, RNA and viruses were when I was a junior in high school. That was pretty eye opening,” said Das.

“My memories of Rhiju is very brilliant very promising, he was one of the very remarkable students at OSSM,” said Dr. Fazlur Rahman.

He was Rhiju’s Chemistry teacher at OSSM.

Rahman remembers fondly Das winning the first gold medal for an Oklahoma student in physics in an international competition.

“We are very proud of these young people who are learning everyday on the new frontier of science and Rhiju is of course one of them. Sometimes people don’t realize the treasure we have in Oklahoma,” said Dr. Rahman.

As for Dr. Rhiju Das, he knows his work is vital to ending the worldwide crisis.

“This pandemic won’t end until basically we have a vaccine. Its gotta go into everybody. Its gotta go into to people in rural Oklahoma and people that live all through out Africa and India.”

Dr. Rahman says it brought hope to his heart when he first heard Rhiju Das was working on the vaccine.

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