COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, slowing down everyday life for many people. But researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine are moving quickly to learn the best ways to diagnose, treat and stop the virus from spreading.
“From a situation where nobody was working on coronavirus here, there's suddenly been a lot of investigators that are asking ‘how can what I am already doing have an effect on coronavirus research and maybe finding treatments or cures?’” said Mark Kaplan, PhD, chair of IU School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
In March 2020, the school suspended nonessential research activities because of the pandemic. But many researchers shifted their focus, taking work they were already doing, like testing treatments for other conditions, and applying it to the coronavirus instead.
“There are some that are working on therapies for cancer, and there’s a possibility that perhaps those therapies interfere with growth of the virus, so they’re hoping to test those. Others are trying to get some drugs that had been tested with other viruses and hoping they might be adapted to work with this virus as well,” Kaplan said.
As more faculty continue their studies of COVID-19, Kaplan said one challenge is finding the right space to do so. There are now over 20 research studies related to coronavirus underway. Working with pathogenic agents like the coronavirus requires a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) facility, and there was only one small operational lab on campus before the pandemic. The school should have four times that space operational by June as more COVID-19 research is planned.
Kaplan is also looking forward to when it is safe for researchers to collaborate together in person again.
“I think that’s certainly one of the limitations in the environment right now,” Kaplan said. “Normally we would all get together in a room and talk about different ideas and everyone would talk about what they’re doing, and that’s been happening a little more slowly.”
Kaplan said as time goes on, researchers will also have access to more patient samples, which could help them answer more questions about how the immune system responds to the virus.
“Why do some people get so sick? Why are others barely symptomatic? Those are questions that we really don’t have answers to right now, and that would be helpful for trying to identify the populations that are going to be the most affected,” Kaplan said.
While schools across Indiana University are researching coronavirus from a variety of angles, below is a brief look at some of the studies currently happening at IU School of Medicine.
Pregnancy and COVID-19
A study led by Gregory Sokol, MD in the Department of Pediatrics is studying the risk of pregnant women who test positive for COVID-19 transmitting the virus to their babies. Researchers are participating in the National Registry for Surveillance and Epidemiology of Perinatal COVID-19 Infection by collecting data from women and their newborns. The study is sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics Section of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. IU School of Medicine is one of at least 28 other institutions participating across the country, with more expected to join. The case forms collect de-identified data on infection control practices, virus testing, disease severity, modalities of treatment, use of breast milk and maternal and infant outcomes. These data will help inform the neonatal care community in real time about the risk of different types of transmission, the severity of disease in the newborn and the efficacy of different infection control practices.
SARS-CoV-2 in patient care rooms
A team led by Cole Beeler, MD is working to determine the environmental burden of SARS-CoV-2 in patient care rooms. Along with patient-care colleagues from Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, the team is analyzing swabs of environmental surfaces, like the floors, walls, ceilings, and bed rails, to determine what surfaces are contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 during treatment of COVID-19 patients.
Treating COVID-19 using airway alkalization
The Ben Gaston laboratory is testing a new treatment for COVID-19 that could help those who test positive for the disease and suffer from severe respiratory symptoms. Michael Davis, PhD said the lab is working with Stacey Gilk, PhD and Chris Robinson, PhD to grow the virus and test a medication they already developed as a treatment for airway diseases. Now, they’re testing the medication to see if it impairs SARS-CoV-2 growth. If it appears to work in the lab, they will try to create a clinical trial quickly for patients to opt in or opt out. If their treatment is successful, Davis believes it could be ready for use on patients with COVID-19 by summer.
Seasonal Respiratory Virus and SARS-CoV-2 in children
A study led by Chandy John, MD, MS is focused on determining the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 and seasonal respiratory virus co-infections in pediatric patients. Researchers are analyzing respiratory specimens from patients to see how often they are infected with SARS-CoV-2 and seasonal respiratory viruses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and others at the same time.
Studying asymptomatic people
Chandy John, MD and James Wood, MD are leading a study called Tracking Asymptomatic COVID-19 Through Indianapolis Communities (TACTIC) to find out how many people in Marion County have COVID-19 but are not currently showing symptoms. When a home is selected for the study, a representative from IU School of Medicine will drop off an at-home nasal swab testing kit, which the volunteers will self-administer in their home.
Studying bats for coronaviruses
A collaborative effort between Ryan Relich, PhD and Daniel Becker, PhD is surveilling neotropical bats to find if they are carrying potentially dangerous viruses, including SARS-CoV-2. The team will be studying bat populations from the Western Hemisphere, especially in Belize, and looking for viruses like SARS-CoV-2, ebola-like viruses and many others. Becker’s lab will be collecting samples and Relich’s lab will be analyzing those samples.
Storing patient specimens for more research
The Indiana Biobank is serving as a centralized biobank for COVID-19-related specimen banking. The goal is to collect standard specimen kits, which include plasma, DNA, RNA and peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) samples, from COVID-19 positive or recovered patients. The collection protocol allows for the collection of de-identified samples linked to the electronic medical record. The goal is to collect a large bank of samples for researchers to access for current and future studies.