Seed grants jump-start 47 interdisciplinary teams to conduct COVID-19 research

Sara LaJeunesse
April 14, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With speed and ingenuity, more than 100 researchers across Penn State are shifting their research programs to address the COVID-19 crisis, thanks to funding from a seed grant initiative led by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. In total, the initiative awarded $2.25 million to 47 teams of researchers from three campuses, 10 colleges and more than 25 departments.

“I am inspired by the nimbleness of our faculty to transition their research programs toward finding solutions,” said Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “Our infrastructure at Penn State facilitates this transition. For example, the University houses a high-security BSL-3 laboratory that enables in vitro drug testing, as well as facilities for conducting genomics, metabolomics, fermentation and cryogenic electron microscopy, among many other features.”

Elizabeth McGraw, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, noted that the seed grants are intended to help faculty members launch their projects so they can then rapidly leverage external funding.

“We need solutions to the COVID-19 crisis right now,” she said. “The seed grants allow our researchers to get started right away. And the virus is likely here for the long haul. Investments in research now can benefit us all for many years to come.”

The 47 funded projects fall within six thematic areas that are aimed at preventing and treating COVID-19 and creating tools that address the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.

Diagnostics and Detection

Widespread testing for SARS-CoV-2 is needed to provide effective health care and to prevent further transmission. Yong Wang, professor of biomedical engineering, is among the Penn State researchers who are developing novel tools to diagnose SARS-CoV-2 infections. He and his team are producing a portable handheld device that can rapidly and sensitively detect SARS-CoV-2 in saliva without the use of enzymes, antibodies or complicated instrumentation that hinder the efficiency of other available detection tools.

“The COVID-19 outbreak requires the development of methods for rapid, sensitive, accurate and cheap detection of SARS-CoV-2,” said Wang. “Existing methods involve the use of antibodies and/or enzymes, which are inherently unstable. This may account for the frequent acquisition of false positive results. We are developing a method for detecting not only SARS-CoV-2, but also any other viruses that may threaten humans in the future.”

Suresh Kuchipudi

Suresh Kuchipudi, associate director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory and professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, and colleagues are using their seed grant to characterize the ability of optical radiation to disinfect and reduce transmission of coronaviruses.

IMAGE: Sanjana Kuchipudi

Once a patient is determined to be positive for COVID-19, what can be done to optimize his or her outcome? In another project, Steven Hicks, assistant professor of pediatrics, and his colleagues are searching for molecular biomarkers in saliva that could help to predict which patients will require escalation of care before it becomes critically necessary.

“Millions of people will likely require intensive care,” said Hicks. “The resources required to manage the surge in critically ill patients will put a massive strain on the U.S. health care system. Our biomarkers could help clinicians to anticipate acute respiratory distress resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection, and proactively intervene using appropriate measures.”

Therapeutics and Vaccines

Preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection with safe and effective vaccines will be the gold standard of care; however, bringing such vaccines to market will require solutions to the problems, such as the inability to produce a robust immune response, that have plagued their development.

Scott Lindner, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Troy Sutton, assistant professor of veterinary and biomedical health, are developing an intranasal vaccine using a virus mimic, and then testing this vaccine candidate in an animal model.

“Multiple vaccine candidates are being advanced into clinical trials. These vaccines must be injected into the muscle where they will be capable of inducing antibodies that protect the lungs, but not the upper respiratory tract,” said Lindner. “We are developing a vaccine that can be applied intranasally to fend off the virus before it makes its way into the lungs.”

Lindner’s and Sutton’s vaccine uses a SARS-CoV-2 spike protein as the antigen — the foreign substance that induces an immune response. Other vaccines in development are using bits of foreign DNA to induce an immune response.

“These DNA-based vaccines have not been widely adopted due to their rapid degradation, limited uptake into host cells and poor expression efficiency,” said Scott Medina, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

Medina is developing a low-cost inhalable delivery system that circumvents the problems hindering the development of DNA-based vaccines. The system comprises a biomimetic, gel-like nanoparticle aerosol, or ‘aerogel,’ that securely carries the vaccine into the lungs where it can be rapidly taken up by cells.

Transmission-blocking Interventions

Infection prevention also can occur with careful hand-washing. In fact, hand-washing with soap is the most important control measure recommended across the globe to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet, according to Tak-Sing Wong, associate professor of mechanical engineering, there are two main drawbacks associated with hand-washing: thorough sanitization of the entire skin surface by hand-washing is challenging and copious amounts of water are required for a recommended 20-second wash.

Wong and his colleague Pak-Kin Wong, professor of biomedical engineering, are creating a self-healing liquid film that can block the passage of microscopic particles and automatically repair damages to itself.

“If successful, the film will be able to sanitize the entire surface of hands properly within about five seconds and use less than a teaspoon of water per wash,” said Tak-Sing. “This technology not only can serve as a rapid and effective disease control measure for hospitals and public areas in the developed world, but it also could benefit the approximately 4 billion people worldwide who suffer from severe water scarcity.

Predictive Modeling and Computational Data Sciences

We all know that relaxing our behavioral interventions, especially social distancing, could lead to a resurgence of the virus that could lengthen the pandemic and cause many more deaths. According to Nita Bharti, assistant professor of biology, areas, such as China, South Korea and Italy, where early behavioral interventions were successful are most at risk of experiencing a subsequent wave of transmission due to premature relaxation of behavioral interventions.

Nita Bharti and Matt Ferrari with satellite data

Nita Bharti, assistant professor of biology, received a seed grant to predict COVID-19 resurgences in areas where behavioral interventions have been prematurely relaxed.  

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Bharti and collaborator Anthony Robinson, associate professor of geography, are measuring changes in movement and contact patterns within and between locations to assess their impact on the COVID-19 outbreak in areas where the relaxation of early behavioral interventions presents an immediate risk of a subsequent wave of transmission.

“Pandemic decision-making requires actionable information and clear communication,” said Bharti. “Our work will provide location-specific early warnings ahead of reported cases of COVID-19. These early indicators will guide surveillance and testing efforts and inform behavioral interventions to prevent resurgences.”

Prasenjit Mitra, professor of information sciences and technology, and Lee Giles, David Reese Professor of Information Sciences and Technology, are producing another computational tool to assist decision-makers. They are trying to make sense of the massive amounts of information that the global scientific community is producing by developing artificial-intelligence-based tools to extract relevant information, link related items, and make the items readily searchable and usable to answer important questions about the pandemic.

“The information and knowledge that exists within all of this scholarship can help us better understand the pandemic and institute policy guidance at a governmental level,” said Mitra. “Our tool will provide scientists and policymakers an up-to-date view of the ‘state-of-the-science’ based on the best-known evidence and will identify hidden associations and key knowledge gaps.”

Social Sciences

COVID-19 is affecting all segments of the global population, and the full set of impacts is yet to be seen. Christian Connell, associate professor of human development and family studies, is specifically studying the impacts of the public health response and parental stressors on the safety and well-being of children with a web-based survey of parents of children ages 0-12 across the northeastern U.S. His goal is to inform strategies to support vulnerable children and their families.

“Social distancing measures and mass school and child care closures, while essential, result in children spending more time at home where they could experience increased incidents of child maltreatment by caregivers who face work and financial concerns, among other stressors,” said Connell. “It is important to understand the extent of families’ adversity so we can best allocate resources to protect them.”

If the COVID-19 pandemic continues for long enough, it could threaten our food supply by inhibiting access to our food reserves, reducing farm labor pools and disrupting international imports, among other impacts.

Led by Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling, a team of interdisciplinary researchers is compiling a report on the implications of COVID-19 for Pennsylvania’s agriculture and food supply chain. In addition, they will deploy tools for assessing risks in the food system and identifying plausible interventions.

“With most U.S. state authorities and countries playing defense against COVID-19, it is critical for Pennsylvania and the nation to preserve the integrity of the food system and to understand the broader implications for the environment,” said Kemanian.

Cohort Studies

Uncomplicated by the pandemic, pregnancy by itself increases a woman’s risk for food insecurity, domestic violence, depression, substance abuse, anxiety and sleep disorders, according to Aleksandra Zgierska, professor of family and community medicine. Further, she added, pregnancy and post-partum periods among women affected by Swine Flu conferred a 4-5-fold increase in risk for complications, including mortality.

“It is imperative that we identify and address the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women,” she said. “This risk may be from the COVID infection directly, current social distancing requirements, which may lead to job and food insecurity and contribute to domestic abuse and heightened maternal anxiety about the child’s health due to COVID-19 exposure that may impact the woman’s well-being and mental health.”

Zgierska and her colleagues will assess and identify the immediate needs of their pregnant patients at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and rapidly connect the most vulnerable patients to their needed resources.

Community Support

Launching 47 teams of researchers to study COVID-19 in a matter of weeks illustrates the commitment of our entire research enterprise, said Lora Weiss, senior vice president for research.

“Spearheaded by the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the COVID-19 seed grant initiative would not have been possible without the collaboration and support from the Social Science Research Institute, the Materials Research Institute, the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences, and the Institutes for Energy and the Environment, as well as several of the University’s colleges. These interdisciplinary relationships have been essential to the success of this initiative,” she said.

If you would like to support Penn State’s research related to COVID-19, go to https://raise.psu.edu/response/.

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Last Updated June 01, 2020