Brown research teams mobilize to study COVID-19 solutions

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PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] – In an effort to accelerate innovative research on COVID-19, Brown University has awarded a total of $350,000 to 15 teams of faculty researchers working quickly to develop solutions that could impact the response world to the pandemic.

The awards from the University’s new COVID-19 Research Seed Fund, established in early April as the novel coronavirus continued to spread across the country, are aimed at accelerating projects and helping them attract additional funding. Selected after review by a panel of Brown faculty members, the research covers a wide range of disciplines from biology and medicine to engineering, computer science and economics.

“Helping solve society’s most critical problems is one of the University’s highest priorities,” Provost Richard M. Locke and Vice President for Research Jill Pipher wrote when the awards were announced. award at Brown Campus. “With the world in crisis, we are inspired to see the Brown community coming together to be part of the cutting edge of COVID-19 research.”

Many of the awards aim to have an immediate and direct impact in Rhode Island, complementing a number of other community initiatives led by Brown students, faculty, and staff.

“Brown has a special responsibility to make valuable contributions to Rhode Island through our research and services, and to advance innovation in our home community, and these funded projects will do just that,” Locke and Piper.

Project goals range from new therapies to home COVID-19 testing to 3D-printed ventilators. Here is an overview of four of the 15 newly ongoing research projects:

Long-term care

The pandemic has highlighted the unique vulnerability of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, which have experienced high rates of infection and death. A seed award to a team led by Rosa Baier from the School of Public Health will fund a national survey of frontline staff in long-term care facilities to understand their responses to COVID-19 and help improve strategies that these establishments employ in the future.

“We want to document frontline experiences and quickly disseminate best practices,” said Baier, associate director of the Center for Long-Term Care Quality and Innovation. Hearing from caregivers and others “will help us understand what is happening on the ground.”

Baier and his colleagues will conduct the survey based on existing relationships with long-term providers across the country, forged through a relationship with the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living, which represents two-thirds of nursing homes in the United States.

National biodeposit

Providing valuable research resources for the State of Rhode Island is the primary goal of establishing the Lifespan/Brown COVID-19 Biobank based at Rhode Island Hospital.

“We’re building an infrastructure for researchers who have new ideas,” said lead researcher Edward Hawrot, a Brown professor of medical sciences and senior associate dean of the biology program.

The same way blood sugar is used in diabetes, “doctors would like to be able to screen and find a biomarker” to identify people most likely to suffer serious complications from COVID-19, Hawrot said. This could help with diagnostic and treatment decisions, one of the goals of blood-based research.

Patients entering the emergency departments of Rhode Island Hospital and Miriam Hospital are asked if they would like to volunteer to donate blood samples for research. The repository will include stored blood samples from people who have tested positive or negative for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and researchers across the state will be able to apply to use samples in their COVID-19-related research, Hawrot said.

Hawrot’s collaborators are several members of the Warren Alpert medical school who have key clinical roles at the Rhode Island Hospital, including Bharat Ramratnam, scientific director of Lifespan.

The project is also supported by Advance-CTR, a statewide clinical and translational research center based in Brown that supports biomedical researchers throughout Rhode Island. Working in coordination with the other 10 CTR groups across the country, the biodepot is already paying dividends elsewhere, as Hawrot’s group is helping Nebraska’s CTR organization set up a similar biodepot plan.

Exposure estimate

The goal of a group led by Amanda Jamieson, assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, is to determine the extent of exposure to the virus in Rhode Island. Due to the large number of people who remain asymptomatic after being infected, “we really don’t have a good idea of ​​how many people have been exposed,” Jamieson said.

Jamieson’s team has the most diverse composition of COVID-19 Research Seed Fund awardees. Besides her, it includes three researchers in pathology and laboratory medicine, and an economist. The team had to be multidisciplinary because of the complexity and the need for a range of skills to obtain samples, analyze them and model the data to reach conclusions, she said.

Jamieson said Emily Oster, an economics professor, has an important role because of her expertise in data analysis and her perspective as co-chair of Brown’s Healthy Fall 2020 task force, which is developing a public health plan. in an effort to reopen the campus safely in the fall.

The team also includes several Brown researchers who work at Rhode Island Hospital. The project will use hundreds of blood samples, either already collected – possibly including some from the new biodeposit – or in blood tests performed locally.

Similar studies of COVID-19 exposure are underway in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, and Jamieson plans to coordinate with those researchers to learn from their experiences.

Antiviral drugs for treatment

Finding ways to inhibit the key SARS-CoV2 protein N and potentially help develop antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19 is the goal of a team of four principal investigators combining their expertise in structural biology and virology.

“We are trying to understand how the viral genome is packaged inside the virus by studying the structure of the Nucleocapsid (N) protein and its interaction with RNA,” said Mandar Naik, Assistant Professor (Research) of Molecular Pharmacology , physiology and biotechnology. , “We aim to identify new compounds that can interfere with RNA binding or self-association of this protein. Our approach is to disrupt the viral assembly to stop the spread of the virus.

The group – which also includes Brown researchers Gerwald Jogl, Nicolas Fawzi and Walter Atwood – is conducting large-scale computational analysis of possible drugs against targeted regions of COVID-19 proteins. Those that show promise will be tested for effectiveness, using nuclear magnetic resonance, crystallography, biophysical and functional tests.

“Antiviral drugs are the greatest need of the hour,” Naik said.

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