WVU Health Sciences Center laboratory research teams sustained progress even during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic | Today


Dr Darius Becker-Krail (foreground), Dr William Walker and Hecmarie Meléndez-Fernández perform a lab test.

(WVU Photo/Dakota Sabo)

Despite the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the laboratories at West Virginia University Health Sciences Center have largely been able to remain open and functional, allowing critical research to continue. Not only have researchers been able to continue their work during the pandemic, but there has actually been an increase in research productivity.

The Department of Neuroscience saw an increase in publications and grants awarded, from a total of 89 publications in fiscal year 2019 to over 160 publications in fiscal year 2020.

School of Pharmacy faculty members Lori Hazlehurst and Mark McLaughlin, affiliated with the WVU Cancer Institute and Modulation Therapeutics Inc., have developed a drug called MTI-201, to treat uveal melanoma, the most common form of eye cancer, after the cancer has traveled to another part of the body. Hazlehurst and McLaughlin have received clinical trial approval from the FDA for the drug that will treat eye cancer from the inside out.

During this same period, WVU also received grants for clinical research related to neurological disorders. This funding will examine psychosocial stress-induced vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease with research led by Paul Chantler, Associate Professor of Exercise Physiology.

“The first Chantler-funded NIH R01 grant application focuses on one of the growing major challenges for our aging population in the state and nationally,” said John Hollander, professor and assistant dean for research and Higher Education, Department of Human Performance. “Understanding the mechanisms that contribute to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease will be essential to consider therapeutic strategies to treat and/or help these people.”

That research of this caliber has been able to continue, even during a pandemic, means WVU Health Sciences is able to maintain and exceed its status among peer institutions and to continue an upward trajectory of discovery and innovation.

“Every metric you look at has gone up, not flat, not down, but up,” Nelson said. “I have been impressed with the increase in productivity during a pandemic.”

In addition to typical research areas, many researchers have also taken on critical roles related to COVID-19, including fit testing and mask development, aerosol sampling and modeling, education and research. sensitization, variant sequencing and the development of tests to measure antibody levels. Many of these “bench” efforts were essential to the translational research projects led by Dr. Sally Hodder and funded by the NIH.

The location of health sciences has also been beneficial, as surrounding rural communities have seen low rates of infections, while other universities and medical centers in major cities have been forced to close for months, a explained Nelson.

Graduate students in biomedical sciences at the Health Sciences Center have also benefited from the fact that the laboratories have remained open throughout the pandemic. Nelson said WVU students were able to stay on schedule, while other students may have lost a year of work.

“The rate of doctoral degrees awarded has not been negatively affected by COVID-19,” said Heath Damron, associate professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology and director of the development center of HSC vaccines. “The students adapted and achieved their goals. »

The WVU Research Office and Fred King and Sheena Murphy worked with individual HSC Principal Investigators on plans for their research teams to adhere to the safety guidelines that were in place and keep the labs operating, while working to that the groups return to full capacity as they are today, according to Laura Gibson, senior associate vice president of health sciences for research and higher education and associate dean for research at the School of Medicine.

“The fact that the Health Sciences Center teams rose to unexpected challenges and were very nimble in their approach to their research and overall pandemic response is a reflection of their resilience,” Gibson said. “There’s no denying that it’s been a very difficult year and a half overall; However, even with significant challenges and uncertainties, faculty, students and staff kept moving forward – it reminded us that we truly can do anything when we are at it together.



CONTACT: Wendy Holden
Senior Communications Specialist
WVU Health Sciences Center
304-293-9528; [email protected]

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