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Georgia Research Alliance – funder of life-saving research – turns 30

David Ratcliffe

David Ratcliffe after the board meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance on Feb. 7, 2019 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

Thirty years ago – on June 6, 1990 – the inaugural board meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance took place – a pivotal moment for universities, the state and businesses.

The fruits of the research conducted with funds from the Georgia Research Alliance, the private sector, state and federal government is now paying priceless dividends.

More than a dozen scientific initiatives are underway in Georgia to study, treat or prevent the deadly coronavirus – only one example of the impact GRA has had on our state.

David Ratcliffe

David Ratcliffe after the board meeting of the Georgia Research Alliance on Feb. 7, 2019 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

David Ratcliffe, retired CEO of the Southern Co. who is chair of GRA’s board (for the second time), described it as “three decades of hard work and extraordinary success that hasn’t gotten enough publicity.”

In a telephone interview on Friday, Ratcliffe said it is important for us to remember the leaders who founded GRA 30 years ago. They created a new economic development model – to attract top scientists and their labs to Georgia in the same manner that the state would try to recruit new industry.

The model worked, and other states took notice and tried to replicate it. The model creates a partnership between Georgia’s public and private research institutions, top business leaders and the state government.

“We’ve gotten more credit outside of Georgia than we have in Georgia,” Ratcliffe said. “It has put Georgia on the map.”

Ratcliffe said GRA has not always received the support it deserved. The past two governors –Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal – “were not as passionate as some of their predecessors.”

But Ratcliffe added that Gov. Brian Kemp understands and appreciates the role GRA has played. It’s just that he is now “consumed” with the dual crises of COVID-19 and the current protests.

Fortunately, the investment in the scientists and research is paying off.

Ted Ross, UGA professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of Infectious Diseases. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

“They are on the front lines of COVID research,” Ratcliffe said. “Look how important the research we’ve done has been to the nation and the world.”

In a letter to his fellow trustees on June 5, Ratcliffe wrote:

As you read this, Georgia’s university scientists are at work on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to battle the highly infectious COVID-19 disease. The contributions they’re making are significant and impressive.

He also paid tribute to the original founders of GRA.

I take delight in following threads from the first days of GRA. Tom Cousins and Lawrence Gellerstedt, Jr. were the early guiding lights; Tom remains an Emeritus Trustee, and the Gellerstedt family’s involvement continues with Larry Gellerstedt III, a current trustee and past chair. The same is true of the Russell family. Herman was on that first board of trustees, and his son Michael serves today. Also serving on the inaugural board was Bradley Currey, Jr., who continues to be a presence at our meetings, sharing wisdom and insight. And an initial $500,000 grant to establish GRA’s operations came from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which back then was led by Pete McTier, our current secretary-treasurer.

GRA has had three presidents in its 30-year history: Bill Todd, Mike Cassidy and Russell Allen.

Ten years ago, GRA published its 20-year history. Here is a link to the abbreviated version

The Alliance shared some examples of how GRA-backed researchers and entrepreneurs in Georgia are applying their expertise and ingenuity against the coronavirus.

  • An experimental drug developed at Emory University to treat the COVID-19 disease has begun Phase 2 clinical testing in humans. The treatment is being licensed by Ridgeback Biotherapeutics through DRIVE, LLC, an Emory nonprofit working to bring the drug to market. In late May, Merck announced it had licensed the drug. More >
  • GRA Eminent Scholar Ted Ross at the University of Georgia is leading a research team to develop a novel vaccine against COVID-19. Already, the vaccine is being tested in animal models. More >
  • Georgia State University scientists in the lab of GRA Eminent Scholar Julia Hilliard are working around the clock to produce and analyze test kits for the coronavirus. When fully ramped up, her lab will process up to 1,200 kits per day, making it one of Georgia’s largest testing operations for the virus. More >
  • The first vaccine to protect against COVID-19 is being tested on humans at Emory University’s Hope Clinic. As part of the Emory Vaccine Center, led by GRA Eminent Scholar Rafi Ahmed, the Hope Clinic is one of two U.S. sites to determine the safety of the vaccine and how much it stimulates the immune system. More >
  • Axion Biosystems, a startup launched out of Georgia Tech, is offering its Maestro technology to researchers and drug developers working on COVID-19. The Maestro platform connects human cells in a petri dish to an electrical current – all to evaluate many possible drug compounds at once.
  • GRA Eminent Scholar Chris Basler of Georgia State has applied for funding to test drug compounds on the virus that causes COVID-19. The compounds have already been shown to have “antiviral activity” against the Ebola virus. More >
  • GeoVax Labs is designing vaccine candidates by using genetic sequences from the virus responsible for COVID-19. To help inform the effort, the company is in communication with BravoVax in Wuhan province, China. More >
  • GRA Eminent Scholar Ralph Tripp at UGA has identified three FDA-approved drugs that have the potential to treat COVID-19. As of late April, one of them, the cancer drug selinexor, was already being tested in patients with severe forms of the disease. More on that clinical trial >
  • Since February, the startup Micro B-plex has been collaborating with Emory and others to develop novel diagnostic tests for COVID-19. The tests would help determine acute infections and evaluate immune response. The team is also working with partners to identify neutralizing antibodies from patient blood samples.
  • J.D. Li, a GRA Eminent Scholar at Georgia State, is developing a treatment strategy to control overactive inflammation in COVID-19, one of the leading causes of death from the disease. His goal is to identify an existing anti-inflammatory drug that can be paired with antiviral therapeutics developed by colleagues in GSU’s Institute of Biomedical Science, which Li leads. More >
  • A COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed by GRA Distinguished Investigator Biao He and UGA colleagues promoted an immune response in earlier tests against the MERS coronavirus. Based on a platform containing modified strains of the virus that causes kennel cough in dogs, the vaccine remains in development. More >
  • Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) scientists are working with a pharma company in Senegal to evaluate an herbal treatment for COVID-19. The treatment is based on patented MSM products that have already shown anti-viral properties against HIV, Ebola, influenza and MDR bacteria. More >​
  • A four-sided box made of clear polycarbonate is now being used to safeguard healthcare workers from virus particles when intubating patients. Georgia Tech engineers developed the box working in partnership with GRA Eminent Scholar Susan Margulies. More >
  • The monoclonal antibodies Jin-Xiong She is developing into cancer cell line therapies may hold promise for a new therapy to treat Covid-19. The Augusta University Eminent Scholar is re-purposing his work to generate “anti-spike antibodies” against COVID-19 with the aim of clinical testing this year. More >
  • Handwashing is critical to minimizing the spread of coronavirus, but so many people don’t do it properly. GRA Distinguished Investigator Bill Wuest of Emory University, who researches disinfectants, took to the news media to explain just how washing can destroy the virus. More >


Georgia Research Alliance welcomes Gov. Brian Kemp at its board meeting on Sept. 19, 2019 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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