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Faculty Researchers Receive UML Seed Funding for COVID-19 Work

Projects Aim to Improve Understanding of Novel Coronavirus

David Kriebel
Public Health Prof. David Kriebel is leading a project that received $8,500 in seed funding to examine whether COVID-19 patients treated with hypertension medications see improved outcomes.

04/30/2020
By Ed Brennen

Three faculty-led research projects focused on immediate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have received more than $33,000 in seed funding from the university’s Office of Research and Innovation.

The data-driven projects address the novel coronavirus from a broad range of research perspectives, including the effectiveness of hypertension medications in treating the disease, the risk factors for patients in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals, and the impact of misinformation on the public’s understanding of public health policies.

“These collaborative projects will quickly contribute to a better understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and address the crisis created by this disease,” says Anne Maglia, associate vice chancellor for research administration and integrity. “They highlight the important work being done at public research universities like ours.”

Natalia Palacios, an assistant professor of public health, leads a team that received $15,000 to study the epidemiology and risk factors for COVID-19 infections and outcomes in U.S. veterans.

Along with Prof. Dan Berlowitz, chair of the Public Health Department, and Jong Soo Lee, assistant professor of mathematical science, the team is developing a real-time tracking system of COVID-19 cases within the VA’s health care database. The seed funding will enable preliminary analysis of acute symptoms, patient characteristics and treatment outcomes, which will be the basis for additional external funding opportunities.

Criminal Justice Assoc. Prof. Kelly Socia is the principal investigator on a project that received $10,000 to assess people’s current understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and identify best practices for getting factual information out to the public.
“These collaborative projects will quickly contribute to a better understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and address the crisis created by this disease.” -Assoc. Vice Chancellor Anne Maglia

Criminal Justice Assoc. Prof. Wilson Palacios, Political Science Asst. Prof. John Cluverius and Rebecca Stone, an assistant professor of sociology at Suffolk University, are also part of the project, which will leverage the university’s Center for Public Opinion Research to obtain data from an ongoing national survey conducted by YouGov. The investigators hope to use their preliminary results in a broader study funded by Facebook Research. 

The team is working on a similar project on opioid addiction that looks at how certain information and terms, like “addict,” shape public support for safe injection sites. Socia says it was a “natural fit” to examine the COVID-19 pandemic through the same lens.

“If there are specific kinds of misinformation or media consumption that are related to people ignoring or being openly hostile to social distancing policies, knowing this can help policymakers and public health officials in determining how to respond to the pandemic in the most effective way, now and in future pandemics,” Socia says.  

Public Health Prof. David Kriebel is leading a project that received $8,500 to examine whether COVID-19 patients treated with hypertension medications see improved outcomes.

The research team, which includes Research Prof. Susan Sama, postdoctoral fellow Ann Bauer and Senior Biostatistician Rebecca Gore, is working with Reliant Medical Group, a health care provider in Worcester, to access data from 400 clinically confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts. The results can help inform clinicians worldwide on the efficacy of hypertension medications.

Kriebel notes doctors have learned that people with high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes tend to have a much more difficult time fighting off the coronavirus infection. This is because those conditions, and some of the medications used to treat them, interact with the same receptors on the surface of cells lining the respiratory tract that the coronavirus uses to gain entry.

“It is urgent that we find out whether the use or avoidance of certain common hypertension and diabetes medications leads to better or worse outcomes for COVID-19 patients,” Kriebel says.

The Research and Innovation office has put out a second call for collaborative proposals that further study the COVID-19 pandemic. Applications are due June 5.