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Research Now - Winter 2021

Eberly scientists pivot to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
16 March 2021

Searching for antiviral and vaccine targets in SARS-CoV-2

By Sam Sholtis

Joyce Jose in the laboratory.

Joyce Jose, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, was awarded seed funding from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences to develop targeted therapeutic intervention strategies against SARS-CoV-2. 

Jose has extensive experience working with biosafety level 3+ (BSL-3+) pathogens that require a biocontainment facility. BSL-3 laboratories are rare at universities, but in 2014 Penn State opened the Eva J. Pell ABSL3 Laboratory for Advanced Biological Research.

“We developed a strategy where we can safely fast-track tests for antiviral agents against SARS-CoV-2 and develop a system to evaluate potential vaccine candidates in our BSL-2 laboratory before moving to the BSL-3 lab,” said Jose.

Jose will use synthetic DNA to make cells grown in the lab produce two SARS-CoV-2 proteins and then test the ability of small molecules to inhibit the activity of these proteins. Her team can also trick cells into making the proteins that compose the structure of the virus’s outer shell and assemble them into particles that look just like the virus but that can’t cause disease. These viruslike particles can then be used to test potential vaccine candidates.

“We also want to begin building genetic systems that allow us to better understand how this virus works,” said Jose.

Read more.


New decontamination protocol permits reuse of N95 respirators

By Gail McCormick

N95 masks in fume hood
Credit: Moriah Szpara

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a shortage of personal protective equipment, including N95 respirators, needed by frontline healthcare providers. A new protocol using aerosolized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 respirators could allow them to be safely reused in some hospital settings, where the disinfectant is already being used for other decontamination purposes.

A Penn State research team optimized the decontamination protocol and tested five common models of N95 respirators inoculated with three types of virus. The viruses were selected because they share one or more common characteristics with SARS-CoV-2.

The researchers found that all of the tested viruses within the respirators were destroyed by aerosolized hydrogen peroxide decontamination, indicating that their protocol is effective. Importantly, the protocol did not impact the fit of N95 respirators after one, five, or ten rounds of decontamination.

“We conducted this research as part of the broader Penn State MASC initiative, and we have been communicating with hospitals in central Pennsylvania about this and other potential decontamination protocols since the onset of COVID-19 in the state,” said Moriah Szpara, associate professor of biology and of biochemistry and molecular biology. “We hope that this work can make a difference at hospitals, both locally and worldwide.”

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Researchers identify evolutionary origins of SARS-CoV-2

By Sara La Jeunesse

Bats hanging from wood
Credit: Creativenature_NL, istock

By reconstructing the evolutionary history of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, an international research team has discovered that the lineage that gave rise to the virus has been circulating in bats for decades and likely includes other viruses with the ability to infect humans.

“Coronaviruses have genetic material that is highly recombinant, meaning different regions of the virus’s genome can be derived from multiple sources,” said Maciej Boni, associate professor of biology. “This has made it difficult to reconstruct SARS-CoV-2’s origins.”

The team used three bioinformatic approaches and found that the lineage of viruses to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs diverged from other bat viruses about 40–70 years ago. SARS-CoV-2 and its relatives share the receptor-binding domain located on the sSpike protein, which enables the virus to recognize and bind to receptors on the surfaces of human cells.

The team concluded that preventing future pandemics will require better sampling within wild bats and human disease surveillance systems that are able to identify novel pathogens in humans and respond in real time.

“We were too late in responding to the initial SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, but this will not be our last coronavirus pandemic,” said Boni. “A much more comprehensive and real-time surveillance system needs to be put in place.”

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How people’s movement impacts COVID-19 transmission

By Sam Sholtis

Penn State biologist Nita Bharti and geographer Andrew Tatem compared satellite images of nighttime lights over time to estimate population changes in places like Niamey, capital of the West African nation of Niger, and then correlated those changes with public-health records of measles outbreaks. Credit: Penn State

Nita Bharti, Lloyd Huck Early Career Professor and assistant professor of biology, and her collaborator Anthony Robinson, associate professor of geography, have been awarded seed funding from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences to study how monitoring the movement of people can potentially be used as an early indicator of COVID-19 transmission. 

“We usually see about a two-week lag between when cases of COVID-19 are reported and when those cases were actually transmitted,” said Bharti. “We are looking at ways to noninvasively monitor how much people are moving around as a way to estimate transmission of COVID-19, because if we wait until we see cases to respond, we will already be behind the pandemic.”

Bharti and Robinson plan to use passive satellite surveillance data showing changes in nighttime lights and in air pollution that are associated with the movement of people. The team is also monitoring movement locally using traffic cameras across Centre County. 

“Even though we’ve been fortunate and we haven’t had that many cases here in Centre County yet, so far the movement data matches really well with case counts two weeks later,” said Robinson.

The team hopes these indicators could be used to adjust public health policy proactively before seeing an increase in cases.

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Which COVID-19 models should we use to make policy decisions?

By Gail McCormick

students wearing mask at security checkpoint
Credit: Shouli Li, Lanzhou University

During a disease outbreak, many research groups independently generate models, for example projecting how the disease will spread or how implementing a particular management action might affect these dynamics. However, at the onset of an outbreak, a large amount of information is often unavailable or unknown, and researchers must make decisions about how to incorporate this uncertainty into their models. This leads to differing projections, which can hinder outbreak management. 

An international team of researchers has developed a new process to harness disease models from multiple groups to improve outbreak management. Research groups generate models for specified management scenarios, at first working independently to encourage a wide range of ideas. Then, the modeling groups formally discuss the models to examine why they might disagree, before independently refining their models. Then models are combined into an overall projection for each management strategy, which can be used to guide risk analysis and policy deliberation.

“The process encourages a healthy conversation between scientists and decision makers, enabling policy agencies to more effectively achieve their management goals,” said Katriona Shea, professor of biology and Alumni Professor in the Biological Sciences. “We hope this process actively feeds into policy for the COVID-19 response in the United States.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic affects all college students, but probably not equally

By Gail McCormick

concerned female student at laptop
Credit: Piacquadio/Pexels

A research team including Professor of Mathematics Nathanial Brown has received a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant from the National Science Foundation to map the complex landscape of challenges faced by students, particularly from underrepresented groups, after the sudden closure of campuses across the nation in response to COVID-19 last spring.

According to the research team, students with certain characteristics may be disproportionally impacted. For example, students with low socioeconomic status may have inadequate housing options, while women may experience greater domestic workloads upon returning home.

“To address the barriers to learning that these students face, which is particularly important for retaining much-needed diversity within the STEM pipeline, we first need to identify the vast variety of barriers,” said Brown.

The research team plans to document student experiences during the transition away from campus, the challenges they experience, how these challenges affect academic performance, and factors that facilitated success or failure among underresourced and underrepresented students. Importantly, they will investigate how intersectionality—the interplay of low socioeconomic status, underrepresented race or ethnicity, and gender—influences the variety and magnitude of COVID-19-related barriers to STEM education.

These insights could help universities and instructors support students with the greatest needs and improve distance learning.

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Developing sensors to detect coronavirus in enclosed spaces

By Maria Landschoot

Real-Time Continuous Sensing of SARS-CoV2 using a Microfluidic Assay Platform
Credit: Paul Cremer

Professor of Chemistry Paul Cremer has received a grant from the Penn State Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences Coronavirus Research Seed Fund to develop an inexpensive sensor that can continuously monitor for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The group is adapting a biosensor platform they developed over a decade ago that was designed, for example, to detect biothreats in a subway system. When the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the group immediately turned their attention to building a platform for airborne monitoring of SARS-CoV-2.

“Viral detection is new for us, but the principles of making selective interfacial measurements are the same,” said Cremer.

The sensors monitor changes in interfacial potential—the charge located at the interface, or boundary, between surfaces of different phases, like a solid and a gas—to detect the binding of ions, small molecules, peptides, and proteins at that interface. By immobilizing receptors on a surface, one can determine if the fluid that flows over it—like air—contains certain compounds—like those from a virus—as they bind to the receptors.

The adapted sensors could be used to monitor enclosed spaces like the cabin of an airplane, a crowded conference center room, or an indoor sporting event.

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To read more about how the college has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit