Alumna Explores COVID-19 Therapies
Posted on June 3, 2020
Dr. Miranda Byrne-Steele, a 2003 graduate of the University of South Alabama, is leading a team of researchers exploring coronavirus therapies at a Huntsville biotechnology firm.
Scientists are studying blood from COVID-19 patients and working to identify cells that create antibodies – antibodies that could be used as treatments for the pandemic disease.
“Our immune system is nature’s first doctor,” said Byrne-Steele, director of research and development at iRepertoire. “We are learning from nature by studying the immune system of recovering patients how to neutralize the threat of this virus. Figuring out which antibodies are doing the job – that’s the future therapy.”
A coronavirus vaccine could take a year or more to develop, she said, but treatments for the coronavirus might become available in a matter of months. Bridging that gap could save lives across the country and around the world.
Byrne-Steele and her Huntsville colleagues have been monitoring the progress of COVID-19 since January. She was on a Mardi Gras trip to Mobile in February when iRepertoire began shifting resources to focus on the coronavirus.
“I can remember sitting in my parents’ house on Dauphin Street,” she said, “sending the e-mails and getting everything ready.”
Byrne-Steele began her research career at South, where her father, Dr. Peter Byrne, was an associate professor of electrical engineering. She worked as a student research assistant to Dr. Andrzej Wierzbicki, professor of chemistry and now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Miranda was an outstanding student both in the classroom and in the instructional and research labs,” said Wierzbicki. “As an undergraduate student, Miranda developed her research interests and skills working in my research group on several projects related to crystal growth. Not surprisingly, after graduating from South, Miranda decided to pursue her Ph.D. degree in protein crystallography. We are very proud of her, and we stay in touch via email or during her visits to Mobile.”
Dr. Milorad Stojanovic, an assistant professor of chemistry as South, was a classmate of Byrne-Steele in 2003. He remembers her as kind and thoughtful, with a good sense of humor and a strong academic background, especially in mathematics.
“An exceptional student,” Stojanovic said. “As smart as she was, she could do anything she wanted to do.”
Byrne-Steele was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to Mobile when she was 5 years old. She attended St. Mary Catholic School before graduating from McGill-Toolen Catholic High School.
After graduating from South, Byrne-Smith earned her Ph.D. in Huntsville. She stayed in the city and became a post-doctoral fellow and senior researcher at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology before joining iRepertoire.
She married a NASA computer engineer, Brandon Steele, and had a son, Aiden, who is now 10 years old. On family visits to Mobile, they often ride the mountain bike trails on the South campus.
At iRepertoire, Byrne-Steele was the fourth employee hired. That was five years ago. The company now employs 28 people in the Cummings Research Park west of downtown.
The coronavirus pandemic made their work more immediate and urgent.
“We basically dropped everything,” said Byrne-Steele. “We shifted our research goals. We were working on different items, related avenues, and we kind of shifted what we were doing and focused more on COVID.”
iRepertoire focuses on creating molecular snapshots of the body’s adaptive immune system at given points in time. Researchers started work analyzing data from coronavirus patients in China. Then they began studying samples of patients in Alabama.
The company is collaborating with the Huntsville Hospital System, HudsonAlpha and other Alabama laboratories. Researchers use what’s called Next Generation Sequencing to look at the big picture of the immune system, while also zeroing in on a single cell out of 5 to 10 million.
“Like finding a needle in a haystack, I can pull those cells out of your blood, deposit them onto plates and also sequence those,” said Byrne-Steele. “We can tweeze down to very specific cells that are responding to the virus. Why is that important? Because these are a source of what’s called passive immune therapy. Those antibodies have the potential to be neutralizing for the virus – they block the viral entry into human cells. That’s really what we’re looking for.”
Once these antibodies are identified, iRepertoire would collaborate with other companies to test therapeutic treatments for clinical trials.
Byrne-Steele describes herself as an eternal optimist who hopes that a coronavirus treatment could be developed sometime this year. A treatment is much easier to test and approve than a vaccine. Many labs and companies around the world are conducting research in this area.
At iRepertoire, researchers are working overtime. The company hopes to enroll more than 30 local patients in its study. The coronavirus pandemic offers a once-in-a-lifetime challenge and opportunity for scientists such as Byrne-Steele.
“I hope it’s not the biggest moment we could ever have, but it certainly feels like the moment we’ve been working toward,” she said. “It’s taken years and years of experience and technology development, and we’re applying it in a rapid way. Once we have the patient samples in our hands, there’s a lot we can do, and we can do it quite quickly.”
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