Rallying to the Fight against COVID-19
How Blavatnik Awards Honorees are answering the call to stop the spread of the disease.
Published May 05, 2020
The collective brain power of the global scientific community is trained on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. From predicting and detecting disease spread to identifying an effective treatment, these former recipients of the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists are rising to the challenge as society calls on scientists to help repair the world.
How Many Hospital Beds Will Be Enough?
As news reports raised alarm at the rapid human spread of a new coronavirus in China, Alison Galvani, PhD, immediately began to model how the US healthcare system—with its limited critical care capacity—would respond to a domestic outbreak. As reported on April 3, simulations ran by the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis at Yale School of Medicine predicted that early identification of individuals with symptoms, combined with timely self-isolation, would dramatically reduce the demand for hospital beds and delay the peak-time of outbreak, providing time for additional care resources to be rolled out. Galvani’s predictions informed the dialogue concerning government and workplace policies for promoting effective self-isolation, including guaranteed paid sick leave and flexible work-from-home policies.
Can N95 Facial Masks be Re-used after Disinfection?
A global scramble for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and others in close contact with COVID-19 patients has seen N95-level facial masks surge to the top of every ‘most wanted’ list. This rising demand—exacerbated by hoarding, misuse, and panic buying—impelled Yi Cui, PhD, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University, to test and pinpoint methods of mask disinfection that may allow for reuse without reducing efficiency. After testing hot air (oven), UV light, alcohol, bleach, and steam, a preliminary report by Cui et al. outlines that hot air or UV light, when used according to specific parameters for mask disinfection, did not reduce the efficiency of the mask material. They continue to study the effectiveness of these virus disinfection capabilities in the hopes of enabling the reuse of the single-use masks that are running dangerously low nationwide.
Hijacking the Viral Hijacker
HIV researcher Leor Weinberger, PhD, Director of the Gladstone Center for Cell Circuitry and Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Biophysics at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) has pioneered an approach to prevent the spread of viral infection, which could be used as an alternative to a vaccine. These therapeutic interfering particles (TIPs) are defective viral particles that mimic the virus but are ineffective in replicating. TIPs effectively hijack the virus’ replication machinery, kick starting virus-infected cells into producing therapeutic particles instead of replicating the virus itself.
Free App asks “How Do You Feel?”
Feng Zhang, PhD, Professor in the Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and of Biological Engineering at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has collaborated with high school friend and Pinterest CEO Ben Silberman to launch an app that tracks spread of coronavirus-linked symptoms. The free How We Feel app leverages crowd-sourced, self-reporting of symptoms in 30 seconds or less as a way to possibly reveal and even predict outbreak hotspots. The data collected is aggregated and then shared with collaborating researchers, public health professionals, and doctors to supplement testing and other efforts that plot the course of disease spread.
Could Pregnancy Test–like Device Be the Answer to Swift and Widespread Testing?
The most common COVID-19 diagnostic tests currently in use rely on detection of the virus’ genetic material, its RNA, from nose and throat swabs. However several limitations prevent widespread use: insufficient supply of test kits; the need for trained healthcare workers to administer the test; specific lab equipment to facilitate analysis; and the time lapse between sampling and results reporting. Peng Yin, PhD, Professor in the Department of Systems Biology at the Wyss Institute of Harvard Medical School, has created a disposable test that makes use of a "lateral flow device" to detect virus RNA from nasopharyngeal swabs with high sensitivity and accuracy. Akin to a home pregnancy test that returns a colored line on a strip of nitrocellulose paper, the handheld device is easy to manufacture at scale and can be deployed without special equipment or expertise.
Synthetic biologist Michael C. Jewett, PhD, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern University is similarly working to develop and optimize a single-step test for COVID-19 detection. The project—propelled by a $200,000 rapid response research grant from the National Science Foundation—intends to optimize an easy-to-use, at-home test that will take less than an hour to provide a result and cost less than a dollar to manufacture. The test is believed to be unique in that it is the first diagnostic tool, to the researchers’ knowledge, that could be used to monitor the presence of the virus not only in the human body but also on surfaces or even in water.
CRISPR-based Detection Method Being Assessed for COVID-19 Surveillance
Pardis Sabeti, MD, PhD, began working on diagnostics for COVID-19 in January, within a few days of receiving the virus’ genome from Chinese researchers. A Professor in the Center for Systems Biology and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and the Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease at Harvard School of Public Health, Sabeti has developed algorithms and used machine learning models to predict the most sensitive and accurate assay design candidates for the rapid detection of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic. Sabeti has publicly shared her CRISPR-based assay designs and her group is now evaluating the sensitivity of these assays on patient samples, including sputum, throat, and nasal swabs.
Can We Repurpose Existing Drugs to Treat COVID-19?
The first stop in the urgent search for a treatment for COVID-19 was to look at the roster of medicines already in the marketplace and identify any that might be effectively repurposed to fight this devastating new infection. Nevan Krogan, PhD, Director of the Quantitative Bioscience Institute and Professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at UCSF, along with his collaborators, has identified 69 existing drugs and experimental compounds that may be effective in treating COVID-19. Krogan and team focused their search on how the virus latches onto and enters into human cells, and the viral proteins critical to executing this process. In their new study, the researchers found 332 human proteins targeted by the virus, and subsequently identified 24 drugs already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (to treat such seemingly unrelated diseases as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and hypertension) to test against COVID-19. Two drugs on the list—chloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin—are entering into trials by the World Health Organization and New York State. Krogan’s collaborators at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and the Pasteur Institute in Paris have started testing 22 of the other compounds on the list against live coronavirus grown in their laboratories.
Viral Sleuths Crowdsource Samples from Citizen Scientists
Rob Knight, PhD, Founding Director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation and Professor of Pediatrics, and of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and his UCSD colleague Eugene Yeo, PhD, MBA, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, have collaborated in a pivot of Knight’s microbiome research to include the collection of valuable information about SARS-CoV-2. Knight is co-founder of The Microsetta Initiative, a crowdsourced research effort to improve our understanding of the human microbiome by collecting microbiome samples spanning the world’s populations. The Initiative has now expanded its capabilities to allow citizen scientists around the world to help collect crucial information about COVID-19 through fecal, nasal, oral or skin swabs and blood sample collection by finger stick. The researchers hope to collect data that will help drive epidemiological studies of where the virus is migrating to, help researchers determine who is at greatest risk, who is already immune, how the virus is transmitted, and how it spreads through a population.
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