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University Awards Seed Grants for COVID-19 Research

Five Projects Win a Total of $48,000 in Funding

Coronavirus illustration
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows a close-up view of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

06/23/2020
By Edwin L. Aguirre

With the help of seed funding from the Office of Research and Innovation, faculty researchers from the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences will conduct studies designed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Their projects range from using gold-based drugs to kill SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to zapping blood samples with a laser to test for antibodies to the coronavirus.

“Our goal for funding these research projects is to boost interdisciplinary collaborations and partnerships, which could lead to breakthroughs in understanding COVID-19,” says Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen. “The projects harness the complementary expertise of our faculty researchers, augment existing research and increase the likelihood of obtaining external funding.”

This is the second round of seed grants awarded to faculty researchers for COVID-related projects. Three projects received funding in April. In the latest round, a total of $48,000 in seed grants is being shared among the following five projects: 

Analyzing Genetic Markers in COVID-19 Patients 

Chemistry Assoc. Prof. Matthew Gage is leading a team that received $10,000 to use advanced DNA sequencing techniques to analyze potential differences in gene expression between patients that have severe symptoms and those with milder symptoms.
 
Chemistry Assoc. Prof. Matthew Gage Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
Chemistry Assoc. Prof. Matthew Gage
According to Gage, understanding gene expression markers will ultimately help physicians determine the best course of action for treatment. 

“This information is critical to shortening hospital stays and for lowering hospital inpatient admissions, freeing up resources for those patients who truly need hospital admission and ICU care,” he says.

While current data suggests that the patient’s age, gender and pre-existing medical conditions are contributing factors in the severity of the disease, little is known about the molecular mechanisms that correlate with disease progression and severity, notes Gage.

“If hospitals were able to have better resolution on which patient does and does not need to be admitted based on a simple blood test or oral swab that probes these markers, it would drastically decrease the burden on the health care system and make ventilators available to those who need them,” he says.

Other members of the team include Jack Lepine of the UML Next Generation Sequencing and Genomics Lab and Ph.D. students Pabodha Hettige and Prabath Meemaduma, as well as researchers from Lowell General Hospital, MRN Diagnostics and Versatope.

Using Gold-based Compounds to Combat the Coronavirus

Chemistry Prof. Mingdi Yan’s team – which includes UML Chemistry Prof. Olof Ramström and Dr. Robert Finberg of the UMass Medical School’s Department of Medicine – was awarded $10,000 to test the antiviral effects of gold compounds and gold nanoparticles on live SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
 
Chemistry Prof. Mingdi Yan
Chemistry Prof. Mingdi Yan
“Dr. Finberg’s laboratory at UMass Medical School is one of very few in New England that can test live SARS-CoV-2,” says Yan.

According to Yan, gold compounds have been used to treat tuberculosis, syphilis and inflammatory rheumatoid diseases. Auranofin, a gold salt, is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis as well as other illnesses, including ovarian cancer and diseases caused by parasites and bacteria.

Yan says auranofin has shown strong potential as an antiviral agent. “Promising effects have been demonstrated in treating AIDS caused by the human immunodeficiency virus and liver fibrosis caused by the hepatitis C virus, as well as in targeting the Zika, chikungunya and vaccinia viruses,” she says.

“We believe that gold compounds can be made effective against SARS-CoV-2, based on our strong preliminary data,” says Yan. “They showed excellent activities against difficult-to-treat, Gram-negative pathogens and low toxicities to human cells, and the fact that auranofin can be repurposed to broadly treat viral infections.” 

A Quick and Simple Antibody Test

Noureddine Melikechi, professor of physics and dean of the Kennedy College of Sciences, is heading a team of researchers from UMass Lowell, McGill University in Montreal, Boston University and MRN Diagnostics to evaluate the use of laser in detecting antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. The team received $8,000 in seed funding to conduct the study.
 
Physics Prof. and Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
Physics Prof. and Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi
“Our goal is to test whether the antibodies and the antigens can be successfully and reliably detected in human blood using a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS),” says Melikechi. 

According to Melikechi, the current numbers of confirmed cases worldwide do not accurately reflect the true number of infections. More serological testing is needed to screen greater segments of the population and get a more accurate picture of the spread of the virus. This information is critical as lockdown measures are being eased in various countries, including the U.S. 

LIBS is a rapid, sensitive and cost-effective method that is used in a wide range of applications, including geology, biology, manufacturing, the food industry and forensic science. Melikechi and his research group have successfully demonstrated the use of LIBS in detecting biomarkers for both ovarian cancer and melanoma through a single drop of blood, as well as in analyzing the surface composition of the planet Mars.

LIBS uses intense pulses of laser to vaporize a small portion of the sample and produce plasma, which emits light that is read by a detector. 

“The benefits of LIBS are that it requires only a very small blood sample and it’s fast, with the potential to analyze up to hundreds of samples in an hour,” says Melikechi. 

Antiviral Treatment for PPE

Assoc. Prof. Nancy Goodyear of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences and Prof. Yuyu Sun of Chemistry will use their $10,000 seed grant to test the effectiveness of N-halamine, a compound with proven antibacterial and antifungal properties, in treating personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital workers.
 
Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Assoc. Prof. Nancy Goodyear and Chemistry Prof. Yuyu Sun Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Assoc. Prof. Nancy Goodyear with Chemistry Prof. Yuyu Sun
“PPE plays a vital role in protecting health care workers against COVID-19,” says Goodyear. “To date, no reusable antiviral PPE is available.”

Goodyear and Sun will use MS2 bacteriophage, a low-risk virus, as a surrogate to the coronavirus to test the effectiveness of N-halamine-treated PPE under simulated working conditions. The seed grant builds on the work the researchers have been conducting under a two-year, $417,000 grant from the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

“Contaminated hospital garments worn by nurses and other personnel as well as linens, pillows, towels and privacy curtains have all been identified as sources of health care-associated infections, and all of these have the potential to be contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 and serve as a source of transmission,” says Goodyear. “Thus, reducing pathogens on textile surfaces should be an integral component of infection prevention to significantly minimize the burden of exposure.”

COVID-19’s Impact on Hispanic Population

Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences (BNS) Asst. Prof. Kelsey Mangano is leading the effort to study the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychosocial health and other social factors in a cohort of Puerto Rican adults living in the Greater Boston area. The project, which is supported by a $10,000 seed grant, is an ancillary study to the Boston Puerto Rican Health Study that is funded through the National Institutes of Health, with BNS Prof. Katherine Tucker as principal investigator.
 
Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Asst. Prof. Kelsey Mangano
Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Asst. Prof. Kelsey Mangano
“Data suggest that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting ethnic and minority groups,” says Mangano. “Hispanic adults report that the pandemic is a major threat to their finances, their day-to-day life in the community and their personal health, significantly more than do non-Hispanic populations.” 

According to Mangano, the impact of COVID-19 may have long-term effects on health, as chronic psychosocial and other stressors can lead to the development of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety.

“Thus, it is imperative that the health, financial and emotional impact of COVID-19, particularly among the Hispanic population, is adequately documented to inform policy and other public health initiatives focused on managing future health crises.”

Aside from Mangano and Tucker, other members of the team include BNS Asst. Prof. Sabrina Noel, Public Health Asst. Prof. Serena Rajabiun, Project Manager Michelly Santos and College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Luis M. Falcón.