Numerous Drexel urgent-action research teams working to defeat the pandemic
May 15, 2020
by Marìa Paula Mijares
In an email sent to the Drexel community on March 16, President John Fry announced that all non-critical on-campus research activities would be suspended by March 18 due to the stay-at-home orders. Additionally, most students, professors and staff moved out of campus facilities due to spring and summer quarters being moved online and most co-ops being held remotely.
Regardless, around 20 urgent action research and development projects focused on COVID-19 are being held by university staff after the Office of Research and Innovation developed Drexel’s Rapid Response Research & Development Fund.
Some projects are being held remotely while others need equipment and materials on Drexel’s laboratories, and since they are classified as critical research, they are allowed.
The projects awarded in this fund encompass different areas including diagnostics, vaccines, therapies, personal protective equipment, public and mental health as well as social and economic implications.
Developing a PPE Facemask and Validating Its Removal Efficiency
Due to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, PPE face masks are in short supply for frontline healthcare workers and the public, with manufacturers unable to keep up with demand. To help overcome the shortages in supplies, Professor Genevieve Dion from the Drexel Center for Functional Fabrics is developing PPE face masks that can be manufactured and supplied to Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. Associate Professor Michael Waring is working with Dion to test the filtration efficiency of different mask designs.
“Mask removal efficiency quantifies how effectively it keeps particles (that can contain coronavirus) from being in the air you breathe. A good mask is N-95, meaning it filters out 95% of small particles,” Dion wrote in an email. They are working on the production of these masks at CFF.
Biocontainment Intubation “Tent”: Design Refinement, Testing and Deployment
A team of faculty and Ph.D. students from civil, architectural & environmental engineering, materials science & engineering and biomedical engineering are developing a containment chamber that covers a patient’s head during intubation procedures. This creates protection for the medical professionals from the aerosol the patient releases during that procedure.
The research team is regularly conferring with a group of physicians who conduct these procedures to get their input on our design for functionality, durability and ergonomics. In parallel, some of the faculty teams are doing simulations and lab-based studies to predict and measure the movement of aerosols within the chamber to confirm the ability of the device to minimize the release of aerosols.
This project also counted with collaborative input from other institutions such as Stanford University, University of Iowa and Portland State University.
Design-Build of “AJflex Shield” For Hospitals and Health Systems in the Philadelphia Region
A collaboration between three professors and five colleges of Drexel has come together to make face shields for healthcare workers who struggle to obtain necessary protective equipment. They are working on campus at the Innovation Studio at 3103 Market Street.
The “Drexel AJFlex Shield” project is working with Amy Throckmorton from the School of Biomedical Engineering, Michele Marcolongo from the College of Engineering, Ellen Bass from the College of Computing and Informatics and College of Nursing and Health Professionals, with additional significant contributions from the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.
“We are in production mode! We have now made over 3,500 face shields and have doubled production every week since early April,” Marcolongo said. Thus far, they have distributed their AJFlex Masks to around 15 hospitals and centers including Penn Medicine, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Beverly Hospital in Boston and more.
Inexpensive, Rapid, Field-Usable Genetic Test to Detect COVID-19 in Asymptomatic Individuals
Another shortage issue amid the pandemic has been trying to acquire tests. When the pandemic started hitting the country, there simply were not enough tests to see how many people were infected. Now the production levels of the tests are slowly increasing, but the methods are still taking up to two weeks to know if the person is infected, according to The New York Times.
A group formed by professor Wei-Heng Shih of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering with Dr. Christian Fromm, Dr. Joseph Herres and Dr. Elisabeth Datner are working on their project “Inexpensive, Rapid, Field-Usable Genetic Test to Detect COVID-19 in Asymptomatic Individuals.”
The initial results were very promising. The test could indeed detect COVID-19 at typical viral loads of nasal swabs and saliva samples in 30 minutes,” Shih concluded.
Macrocyclic and Small Molecule Inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 Entry
In a laboratory at New College Building at Drexel’s Center City campus, a group from the Department of Biochemistry integrated by Simon Cocklin, Adel Rashad, Alexej Dick and Megan Meuser are conducting a project titled “Macrocyclic and Small Molecule Inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 Entry.”
“Viruses infect people by attaching and entering their cells, which in turn makes them sick. We are looking to find small drug-like molecules that will specifically stop SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease) from doing this,” Cocklin said. “We are looking for two types of these compounds — one that physically blocks the virus from interacting with the host cell, and another type that alters the shape of a critical protein on the virus such that the virus can no longer enter the cells. These types of inhibitory molecules are very exciting as they could be given to ‘at risk’ populations as a preventative measure, while we are waiting for an effective vaccine.”
They began this project due to a collaboration with a Chinese group at Shandong University that was highly affected by the virus. The Drexel team wanted to help much earlier in 2020, but the project took some time to get started and began their research in late March.
Irreversible Inactivation of SARS-Cov-2 by Spike Protein Targeting
Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Professor Irwin Chaiken from the College of Medicine is working on his project titled “Irreversible Inactivation of SARS-Cov-2 by Spike Protein Targeting.”
The goal of this research is to test ideas initially developed from HIV-1 research to explore ways to irreversibly deactivate the 2019-nCoV virus that causes COVID-19 and stop 2019-nCoV cell infection, Chaiken said. His laboratory has been working on HIV-1 and noticed some similarities between the structures of the HIV-1 spike protein and the spike of the 2019-nCoV virus. Both viruses use their spikes as protein machines to get into cells and inactivating these spikes can stop the infection.
“In work that was initiated in a collaboration of my Lab in the College of Medicine with that of Prof. Cameron Abrams of Drexel’s Chemical and Biological Engineering Department, we had previously discovered genetically engineered proteins that can inactivate the HIV-1 Env spike by triggering changes in the metastable spike assembly. So, I wanted to try out the idea that this class of inactivators, that we now call lectin-DLIs (Dual-action Lytic Inhibitors), might work with 2019-nCoV,” Chaiken wrote in an email.
With the help of Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. student Aakansha Nangarlia, they were able to make SARS-CoV pseudoviruses. They have already obtained promising initial pseudovirus results and are still investigating the binding interactions of lectin-DLIs, antibodies and other proposed SARS-CoV-2 spike protein antagonists.
Adenosine Deaminase-1 Enhances Efficacy of A DNA Vaccine Encoding SARS-Cov-2 Spike Glycoprotein S1 through Modulation of T Follicular Helper Cells
Also in the New College Building, Michele Kutzler and Elias Haddad from the College of Medicine are working on a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, focusing on the spike surface S1 glycoprotein using a DNA vaccine platform, which uses a nucleic acid to encode the S1 protein.
“As the coronavirus S glycoprotein is surface-exposed and mediates entry into host cells, it is the main target of neutralizing antibodies upon infection and thus, will be the antigenic focus of the DNA vaccine proposed in this project,” Kutzler said.
They are also testing an innovative vaccine adjuvant developed in Haddad’s lab called Adenosine Deaminase-1. ADA-1 is an enzyme critical for the maintenance and function of the immune system. Their study will test how ADA-1 can be used as an adjuvant to a DNA SARS-CoV-2 S1 vaccine to enhance immune responses to this virus.
Their research is in a preclinical phase and they have preliminary data that the ADA-1 adjuvant boosts the quality of the antibody response to DNA Vaccines and the team is optimistic that further studies will confirm these early data.
SARS-Cov-2 Infection and Sensing in Primary Human Macrophages
Sonia Navas-Martin and Julio Martin-Garcia, both also from the College of Medicine, study host responses to viral infections and their contribution to the innate immune system in both viral infections and sterile inflammation. Additionally, among the viruses under Navas-Martin’s expertise are coronaviruses.
Their current proposal is aimed to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects human macrophages. “These cells are very important in the lung, as well as in other tissues. Macrophages are key to fight infection in the lung, but they can contribute to disease and mortality too,” Navas-Martin wrote in an email.
Using several experimental approaches in cell culture, they are going to investigate the signaling pathways that the macrophage activates in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection, how the virus may also inhibit some of these responses and compare responses in “normal” vs. “aged” macrophages.
Their long-term goal is to use our discoveries for therapeutic interventions.
Implementation of an Online Peer Support Community to Assist Women with Substance Abuse Disorder during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Pilot Study
Just as there are essential research projects during this pandemic that are carried on laboratories at Drexel, there are research projects that are able to be held remotely and follow social distance guidelines just like the Psychiatry Department’s “Online Peer Support Community to Assist Women with Substance Abuse Disorder during the COVID-19 Pandemic” which is a branch of their Caring Together Program.
They are launching a Facebook group for women in Caring Together that will allow them to connect with each other for support at a time when therapy groups are restricted because of self-isolation.
Their project team is composed by David Bennet from the College of Medicine; Chris Yang and Stella Liang, from the College of Computing and Informatics; Barbara Schindler, the Medical Director of the Caring Together Program; Sharlene Irving, the Program Director of the Caring Together Program; Richard Pointer, a therapist in the program; and Annie Glenney, a Drexel medical student. Additionally, Caring Together Program staff will be monitoring the online community to post information, provide inspirational messages and to help facilitate group discussions.
Chronicling the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical and Mental Health and Telehealth Care Delivery: Perspectives from Providers and Older Adults
Social distancing declared an unprecedented change in the way people live, work, study, socialize and manage their health – especially with older adults and those with chronic conditions are at-risk for COVID-19.
This research led by Professor and Assistant Dean in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, aims to understand the impact of social distancing on physical and mental health and healthcare delivery through telephone interviews with community-dwelling older adults, and those with chronic wounds.
Eventually, they also intend to develop programs to improve the health and well-being of this population since many physicians, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, nurses, physician assistants, mental health practitioners, dietitians and physical therapists are now delivering care remotely via telehealth or telemedicine for the first time.
Improving Spatial Surveillance for COVID-19 Cases While Accounting for Errors in Testing
Public health surveillance efforts provide the underlying data for understanding and responding to the pandemic. However, the surveillance is not perfect: there are many cases missed in the population at large and this is defined as “measurement error,” said Neal D. Goldstein from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Dornsife School of Public Health.
Therefore, Goldstein and Igor Burstyn from the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health are interested in improving the measurements of public health surveillance efforts to provide the underlying data for understanding and responding to the pandemic through their research. They are working with external collaborators David Wheeler from the Department of Biostatistics at Virginia Commonwealth University and Paul Gustafson from the Department of Statistics at The University of British Columbia.
These “measurement errors” can happen from two distinct processes. First, individuals may be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic and not seek healthcare. Second, individuals who are sick and seek healthcare may be misdiagnosed, for example, due to an incorrect test. In both cases these individuals who are in fact sick but not diagnosed are not “officially” counted through surveillance, Goldstein explained.
“Our research mathematically adjusts the surveillance data obtained from various health departments, including Philadelphia, to better reflect reality. Our hope is that these improved estimates can provide the health departments with a better understanding of the burden of disease in their community, and thus better allocate resources,” he said.
They have already generated preliminary results showing how measurement error can quite dramatically affect COVID-19 surveillance and now they seek to expand these earlier efforts to map Philadelphia to demonstrate that the impact from COVID-19 is not uniform across the city, but disproportionately affects certain areas.
Understanding the Disproportionate Impacts of COVID-19 on Low-Income, Minority Communities
A project titled “Understanding the Disproportionate Impacts of COVID-19 on Low-Income, Minority Communities,” conducted by Allison Groves from the Dornsife School of Public Health alongside with colleges from Yale University and American University aims to explore how the pandemic further affects the economic health and social well-being of low-income residents of predominantly minority neighborhoods in New Haven, CT.
This forms part of a project that Groves and her colleagues have been conducting for two years with these communities studying the “social determinants” of health, focusing on how mass incarceration and housing instability result in health inequities. However, now they are focusing their study on the effects of this pandemic in these populations and they are conducting their interviews virtually and gathering the information remotely.
RAPID Assessment of First Responder Mental Health
The COVID-19 RAPID Mental Health Assessment is an interdisciplinary program conducted by Jennifer Taylor and Andrea Davis from the Dornsife School of Public Health; and Christian Resick from the LeBow College of Business. This project aims to study the effects on mental health among first responders in the midst of the pandemic, including issues like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, demotivation in their workplaces and others.
The RAPID assessments project is not new. They began this project in 2017 when they were conducting annual assessments to study these factors among first responders, but now with COVID-19, they changed their structure and are holding monthly assessments and are in the preparatory phase of the data study.
COVID-19: Slow Disaster
The Rapid Response Research & Development Fund also awarded Professor and Head of the Department of History, Scott Knowles’ project of a history podcast “COVID-19: Slow Disaster.” This podcast is intended for a general audience and serves as a vehicle for translating the intertwined histories of epidemiology, public health and geopolitics into a narrative form for use by the media, the research community and educators.
“This project chronicles the history and development of the global COVID-19 pandemic, using historical research and first-person interviews. The finished narrative podcast will unfold over the life of the pandemic,” Knowles wrote in an email.
The project intersects with Knowles’ “COVID-Calls” project, a live daily interview webinar broadcasted on YouTube Live. COVID-Calls is a method of connecting disaster science to the media and educators in a rapid mode.
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