As COVID-19 spreads throughout the world, researchers across Penn State are searching for solutions that may save lives, thanks to a multi-institute seed-grant fund. On March 3, these institutes, led by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, launched a lightning-quick call for research proposals aimed at funding research with the potential to significantly and rapidly improve human health outcomes. So far, researchers in 21 departments and across seven colleges have been awarded $1.2 million. New proposals will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Friday, March 27.
“At Penn State, we are known for our ability to bring together the most innovative minds from across the disciplines to contribute solutions toward society’s most pressing problems,” said Lora Weiss, senior vice president for research. “The speed with which the Penn State institutes have come together to identify funding, along with the creative ways researchers are addressing this global pandemic, is truly remarkable.”
The researchers who have already received funding have hit the ground running.
“Time lost means lives lost and the clock is ticking,” said Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Entomology, and Eberly Professor of Biotechnology. “Penn State has much to offer, and we are rising to the occasion.”
Here are a few of the projects that are underway.
Nikolay Dokholyan, G. Thomas Passanati Professor of Pharmacology, is bypassing traditional vaccine design strategies in favor of a much faster approach using novel computational methods. Their hope is that by mimicking the spike proteins that occur on the surface of SARS-COV-2 they can contribute to the development of a vaccine against the virus.
“Previously, we successfully designed epitopes [locations on synthetically created antigen molecules where a person’s antibodies attach] that triggered an immunological response in animals and allowed neutralization of live HIV virus,” said Dokholyan. “We are now adapting this methodology to see if it will work for a vaccine against COVID-19.”
Paul Cremer, professor of chemistry, is investigating another tool for slowing the spread of COVID-19. He is creating an inexpensive, real-time sensor that can continuously monitor for SARS-CoV-2 in an enclosed space, such as a large conference room, and identify the source of an infection before it spreads.
“While it is effective to employ swab assays to test individual patients, there would be an immense advantage to identifying the outbreak of infection in real time on site, rather than days or weeks later when patients show symptoms and the virus has been spread even further,” said Cremer.
For example, he said, a meeting of 175 employees of Biogen Inc. that took place in Boston in February resulted in one "super-spreader" infecting 70 attendees, which represented the majority of known cases in the state of Massachusetts at the time. Cremer said he hopes that as social distancing requirements are eventually relaxed, his sensor technology may be used to help slow down a resurgence of disease cases.
Social distancing is one of many health precautions that have been recommended by governments and health officials. But what exactly does it entail? As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, people are receiving information from numerous sources, and this information seems to change by the minute. Effective communication is critical to avoid misconceptions and to garner widespread support for public health measures.
Robert Lennon, associate professor of family and community medicine, aims to understand the impact of current information campaigns on public and health care workers’ knowledge about what they should or should not be doing to help contain the spread of COVID-19, and to use this information to inform changes in public health messaging.
“Current media polls suggest a profound public misunderstanding of COVID-19,” said Lennon. “This public misunderstanding can drive policy decisions that increase patient risk to infectious disease outbreaks. Our seed grant will help us to rapidly address this serious problem. It truly is amazing to see the Huck Institutes step up to address this global crisis so quickly, given the normally slow pace of academic medicine. It makes me proud to work for Penn State.”
Effective communication between the scientific community and policymakers is also essential as governments must make quick decisions to protect their citizens.
Taylor Scott, research assistant professor of human development and family studies, is addressing legislators’ needs for research that is related to social and behavioral policy responses to the coronavirus. Her seed-grant-funded project has three primary goals: (1) engage scholars who can respond to congressional needs with timely and scientific technical support; (2) identify scientific knowledge needs among federal legislators; and (3) respond to congressional needs through written and oral communications, review policy language, and create fact sheets for non-academic audiences.
“This work has the potential to significantly shorten the time horizon for translating research conducted at Penn State and elsewhere to decision-makers,” said Scott. “Getting research into the hands of decision-makers as quickly as possible has monumental implications for addressing this public health crisis.”
An interdisciplinary response
According to Elizabeth McGraw, director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and chair of the coronavirus seed-grant selection committee, a goal of the seed grants is to engage researchers from numerous disciplines to address COVID-19 from a variety of angles.
“It has been really inspiring, in these challenging times, to see the creative and diverse ways Penn State researchers are proposing to respond to this pandemic,” she said. "I look forward to seeing the impact of Penn State’s combined research excellence on this complex problem.”
In addition to the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the Materials Research Institute, the Social Science Research Institute, the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences, and the Institutes for Energy and the Environment also are supporting these COVID-19 research seed grants. The institutes welcome contributions from other Penn State units to help support the next round of awardees.