Texas Research Community Works Together to Combat COVID-19 (Summer 2020 Update)

Selda Gunsel Profile

As the pandemic continues, Texas researchers are racing to create solutions for the unique challenges presented by the novel coronavirus.

From the critical shortages of personal protective equipment early on in the pandemic to rapid vaccine and therapeutic development across the state, Texas has seen unprecedented collaboration between industry and academia in the last few months.

Read TAMEST’s compilation of research being done by our member institutions and industry partners to help curb the spread of COVID-19:

Baylor College of Medicine

In Houston, scientists at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) have been hard at work conducting clinical trials for investigational COVID-19 vaccines. In late July, BCM announced that their Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit is one of 90 sites selected to participate in the Phase III clinical trial for Moderna’s investigational mRNA-1273 vaccine.

“This is an important next step in determining the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in a diverse group of persons of different ages, background and exposures,” said Hana El Sahly, M.D., Principal Investigator for the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit.

The unit joined the COVID-19 Prevention Network created by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to enroll thousands of volunteers to participate in Phase III efficacy trials needed for the development of COVID-19 vaccines and the discovery of monoclonal antibodies.

TAMEST Member and moderator for the recent TAMEST conversation on COVID-19: Mitigating the Outbreak in Texas Peter J. Hotez, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM) and his colleague Maria Elena Bottazzi, Ph.D., are working with Seattle’s Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) to create a multiplier effect on the vaccine they created in response to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.

With only 200,000 doses of the potential vaccine in existence, the collaborative effort between Dr. Hotez’s team, IDRI, PATH and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development hopes to add adjuvants to the vaccine to increase the drug’s immunizing effects. According to an article by GeekWire, the adjuvants will allow for the creation of more doses of the potential COVID-19 vaccine.

“Our goal is to collaborate with IDRI and rapidly take our vaccine candidate, currently stored in the freezer, and manufacture clinical-grade vaccine formulations to accelerate their development and testing efforts in the clinic,” Dr. Bottazzi, Associate Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at BCM and a speaker at the recent TAMEST conversation on COVID-19: Treatment and Vaccine Development, said in a news release.

Phase I clinical trials of the vaccine are set to begin in late fall.

Houston Methodist

As both a hospital and research facility, Houston Methodist finds itself on the front lines of COVID-19 treatment, personal protective equipment distribution and the development of therapeutic clinical trials.

The critical shortage of personal protective equipment came to a head in mid-spring as more and more COVID-19 patients flooded into hospitals across the state. Faced with a lack of N95s and an infectious disease protocol requiring that N95 masks be discarded after one use, the System Quality and Patient Safety Team at Houston Methodist developed an autoclaving process for the safe reuse of N95s. The new protocol required many rounds of testing a multitude of N95 models with a Steris Amsco Evolution HC1500 PreVac Steam Sterilizer autoclave to determine which models were safe for reuse.

“The challenge was to find an effective way to remove biological contamination from N95 masks without damaging their protective components or reducing their efficacy,” said Fira Zabaneh, Director of System Infection Prevention and Control, in a news release.

The new autoclave, or immediate-use steam sterilization (IUSS), protocol identified two types of N95 masks that successfully made it through the testing procedures. Dr. Zabaneh’s research was published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology by Cambridge University Press to share this innovative solution with other health care professionals.

As for therapeutic developments, researcher Deepa Bangalore Gotur, M.D., Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, is currently conducting two clinical trials to determine what medications work best in mitigating severe complications in COVID-19 patients caused by a “cytokine storm.” According to a news release, it is found in patients with overly active immune systems that produce an over-abundance of cytokines to combat the infection. This overproduction can result in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) that further complicates the recovery of COVID-19.

“With these clinical trials, we hope to see higher rates of recovery among patients with the most severe symptoms,” said Dr. Gotur.

Rice University

With a lag in COVID-19 test results and the start of the school year quickly approaching, researchers at Rice University are diving into the city of Houston’s wastewater to identify potential coronavirus hotspots.

“There’s a lot of viruses, bacteria, other disease-causing agents that are shed in your stool,” said Lauren Stadler, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice, in a recent interview with Houston Public Media. “And, wastewater-based monitoring really is a powerful tool for capturing the entire community that is served by the plant.”

Although the wastewater testing cannot replace clinical data, the Houston Health Department is integrating the testing data into the department’s decision making in order to ensure resources are being appropriately allocated throughout the city to stop the spread of COVID-19.

In addition to identifying areas with high-densities of COVID-19, Rice researchers are examining the mental and behavioral health impacts of the pandemic. A recent brief from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy reveals that the increased stress parents are experiencing due to the pandemic can impact their children’s early developmental stages.

“While we do not want to be alarmist, the research presented in this brief is supported by decades of studies in many disciplines; all demonstrate the negative impact of parental stress, which is heightened during natural disasters, on brain development,” wrote Quianta Moore, M.D., J.D., Fellow in Child Health Policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and speaker at the recent TAMEST conversation on COVID-19: Health Disparities. “The resultant cognitive and language delays will hinder academic ability and the potential for success in adulthood. We must plan now with the future generation in mind.”

Southern Methodist University

In Dallas, Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) computer science experts are joining the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine with the help of artificial intelligence (AI).

At the helm of SMU’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, TAMEST Member Frederick R. Chang, Ph.D. (NAE), wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Dallas Morning News that “more than a dozen SMU faculty members and students are volunteering their time to text-mine a large collection of scientific papers made available via the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and a collection of research groups.”

The lab will use SMU’s supercomputer to comb through the papers to identify trends, patterns and insights needed in developing a potential COVID-19 treatment.

“Our charge at the time of this pandemic is to deploy everything we now know about AI to discover as much as possible about what we do not know about COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Chang, Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Founding Director of the SMU AI Lab.

In SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, the Deason Innovation Gym (DIG) has transformed from a creation space for engineering students to a manufacturing facility for personal protective equipment. Inspired to help the healthcare workers of Dallas, Seth Orsborn, Ph.D., DIG Director, and Alyssa Phillips, DIG Lab Manager, manufacture more than 300 face shields each week.

According to a recent article, the pair’s goal “is to continue to make face shields for as long as they can and for as long as the demand continues.”

Texas A&M University

In collaboration with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Pulmotect, a biopharmaceutical company, scientists at Texas A&M University are embarking on two clinical trials for a drug that could provide short-term immunity against the novel coronavirus. According to Texas A&M Today, the drug, PUL-042, is a lung inhalant composed of two molecules that temporarily stimulates certain immune receptors in the lung lining. Both trials for the newly developed treatment are in Phase II.

“If these trials are successful, one would presumably produce large numbers of doses and make it available in the Phase III,” said Magnus Höök, Ph.D., Regents and Distinguished Professor, Center for Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases at the Texas A&M Institute of Biosciences and Technology. “Phase III will give much clearer results on how effective it is. That’s also where the funding issue becomes very important to solve, which is something the company is focusing on now.”

The Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s (TEES) National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing (NCTM) recently received funding to create a way to prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from binding to cells. NCTM is currently creating spike proteins designed to obstruct the virus from infecting human cells by identifying antibodies that attach themselves to the virus’ spike protein receptor-binding domain. The created spike proteins are said to be useful once a treatment for COVID-19 is established.

“Beyond screening convalescent plasma, the spike proteins will be needed to determine if protective responses are being generated in response to the vaccination, how long responses persist and if adding antibodies to the spike protein provides a person with immunity such that they can safely return to the workplace without fear of reinfection,” said Susan Woodard, Ph.D., a TEES research scientist, in a news release.

In addition to clinical trials for therapeutic development taking place at Texas A&M, facilities at the university are currently on reserve for mass production of a COVID-19 vaccine as part of a broad federal coalition to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine. According to a news release, a federal task order between the federal government and the Texas A&M University System’s Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing (CIADM) will accelerate a planned expansion at the FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies facility by helping fund new equipment for use in the current pandemic and in future emergencies.

“This validates why the CIADM program was established,” said W. Jay Treat, Ph.D., Texas A&M’s CIASM Chief Manufacturing Officer. “We have state-of-the-art facilities ready to make millions of doses of vaccines to meet the critical needs of our citizens.”

Texas Tech University

Like many regions across the state, the Texas Panhandle saw a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for their local and regional healthcare facilities at the start of the pandemic. To address the lack of supplies, the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium was created.

“This was a real grassroots effort of individuals who recognized that in many of our West Texas communities the question was not even how much we could reuse and how we could repurpose personal protective equipment,” said Joseph A. Heppert, Ph.D., Vice President for Research & Innovation at Texas Tech University, during a recent TAMEST conversation on COVID-19: Manufacturing and Sterilizing Personal Protective Equipment. “There was a serious lack of adequate amounts of personal protective equipment given the mounting cases we were facing. Communities were using alternatives to N95 masks because there were no other options.”

The consortium, a regional group of organizations, businesses and researchers at Texas Tech University, created more than 7,000 3-D printed face shields, prototypes for 3-D printed emergency ventilators, technology that can be used to sanitize equipment for reuse and more. The collaboration made these innovative solutions possible thanks to connecting the 3-D printing resources from across the Texas Tech University System with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, the cities of Lubbock, Midland, El Paso and others.

Beyond dealing with West Texas’ shortage of personal protective equipment, researchers at the university led by TAMEST Member Fazle Hussain, Ph.D. (NAE) have been busy creating epidemiological models that help answer the question, “how long will the COVID-19 pandemic last?”

“Our goal was to combine our expertise in bioengineering and computer modeling to develop a comprehensive model for predicting COVID-19, including the most important and relevant parameters,” said Dr. Hussain, the President’s Endowed Distinguished Chair in Engineering, Science and Medicine at Texas Tech, in a recent article.

Dr. Hussain and his team of researchers recently submitted their paper, “A Predictive Model for COVID-19 Spread Applied to Six US States,” to Nature Medicine. The paper reveals a startling prediction that even in continued lockdown, COVID-19 infections will likely persist for at least two more years.

The University of Texas at Arlington and The University of Texas Medical Branch

As universities across the state prepare to safely welcome students back to campus, The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) is establishing on campus testing focused on students showing COVID-19 symptoms. To do this, UTA recently transformed their North Texas Genome Center (NTGC) into a COVID-19 testing facility with the help of TAMEST Member Florence Haseltine, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), Presidential Distinguished Professor at UTA.

Thanks to Dr. Haseltine’s extensive network of mentees and colleagues, the NTGC was able to acquire a SARS-CoV-2 assay from the Quidel Corporation on the same day the assay was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, the center received the needed SARS-CoV-2 RNA to test the assays from colleague Scott Weaver, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Human Infections & Immunity at The University of Texas Medical Branch.

“I’ve had a lot of people help me in my life, but I’ve never seen this level of cooperation,” said Dr. Haseltine. “Everybody wants to do whatever they can.”

The University of Texas at Austin

At The University of Texas at Austin, Jason McLellan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences in the College of Natural Sciences, has been studying coronaviruses since the SARS epidemic in 2002. In late July, Dr. McLellan and a team of researchers published findings in the journal Science detailing their successful redesign of the spike protein from the coronavirus.

“Depending on the type of vaccine, this improved version of the protein could reduce the size of each dose or speed up vaccine production,” said Dr. McLellan in a recent news release.

The improved version, named HexaPro, could be used in COVID-19 antibody tests to identify the presence of antibodies in a patient’s blood.

According to the university, the original version of the spike protein designed by Dr. McLellan’s team is the basis of potential COVID-19 vaccines currently in human clinical trials, such as Moderna’s mRNA-1273 and Novavax’s NVX-CoV2373.

Beyond vaccine development, the university is also involved in a coronavirus modeling consortium composed of an interdisciplinary network of researchers and health professionals. The University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, led by Lauren Ancel Meyers, Ph.D., Professor of Integrative Biology and Director of the consortium, seeks to support front-line workers and local and state governments with the latest forecasting on the spread of COVID-19.

In a recent news release, the consortium unveiled a newly created framework designed to help inform policy makers on decisions that will protect their communities during this pandemic. The framework identifies a series of trigger points that will help guide local officials to determine when to enact stricter social distancing measures to keep the spread of COVID-19 under control.

“We developed this framework to ensure that COVID-19 never overwhelms local health care capacity while minimizing the economic and societal costs of strict social-distancing measures,” said Dr. Meyers, a speaker at the recent TAMEST conversation on COVID-19: Mitigating the Outbreak in Texas.

Data produced by the consortium has been cited in the New York Times and a report on schools reopening from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and used to create and maintain the Austin COVID-19 Dashboard.

The University of Texas at Dallas

As patient data becomes key to creating accurate predictive models to better cultivate an understanding of the novel coronavirus, a computer science professor at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) is researching how to provide such information while maintaining privacy for patients.

“The issue is: what kind of details can we give to researchers while protecting a patient’s privacy,” said Murat Kantarcioglu, Ph.D., Professor of Computer Science in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, in a recent UTD Today article. “It’s possible that disclosing certain features about a patient’s medical history may make it easier to identify a person.”

With a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, Dr. Kantarcioglu is developing a decision tool that will help healthcare providers evaluate whether releasing data about patients’ locations or medical histories — such as smoking history or prescription drug use — increases the risk of identification.

“We would like to give researchers as much data as possible for this kind of analysis. But we want to make sure that the risk of a person being identified is low,” said Dr. Kantarcioglu.

The University of Texas at San Antonio

During the pandemic, researchers and information security offices saw a rise in cyber-attacks on smart medical devices. Home to the nation’s top cyber security program, it is no surprise that researchers at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) have developed a tool to detect these attacks as soon they begin.

“Smart devices are here to stay — inside our homes, cars and businesses,” said Elias Bou-Harb, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Cyber Center for Security and Analytics in the College of Business at UTSA, in a UTSA Today article. “They are used in water facilities, power utilities and manufacturing plants all over the country. But without ensuring a proactive security plan, malicious cyber actors — including state-sponsored threats — can use such unprotected devices to infiltrate every facet of our lives.”

Dr. Bou-Harb and his team have developed active scanning techniques that will identify how and when IoT devices are compromised by a malicious attack. In creating these techniques, the team also discovered exploited medical devices in 46 hospitals and clinics globally, with one specific medical device being compromised in an operating room.

“We hope that [by] sharing threat information from our cybersecurity capability, the industry will be proactive and protect against these ever-changing exploitations,” said Dr. Bou-Harb.

The university is also involved in a collaboration with Southwest Research Institute, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio as part of the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics. The joint effort has announced funding for three additional COVID-19 research efforts in San Antonio since it received initial funding for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine this past April.

“These three additional projects support a strong foundation of transformative COVID-19 research happening in San Antonio,” said Taylor Eighmy, Ph.D., President of UTSA, in a recent news release. “From better understanding the virus and applying custom therapies to developing drug treatments and vaccines, our partnership is in the unique position to make a real difference in the global impact of this pandemic.” 

University of Houston and The University of Texas at MD Anderson Cancer Center

At the University of Houston and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, researchers have created what they call a “catch and kill” air filter to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Developed by Zhifeng Ren, Ph.D., MD Anderson Chair Professor in the Department of Physics, and Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, the nickel foam air filter is heated to 392 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat combined with the air filter’s material, kills 99.8% of the virus in a single pass through the filter.

“This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Ren in a Houston Chronicle article.

The design of the innovative filter has been published in Materials Today Physics.

UT Health San Antonio

From clinical trial results to discoveries revealing key insights to the structure of COVID-19, researchers at UT Health San Antonio have helped Texas make enormous strides in the fight against this infectious disease.

In late May, UT Health San Antonio contributed to a published study releasing the preliminary results of a recent “Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial” testing remdesivir. According to a news release, the trial consisted of 1,063 patients divided into two groups. One of these groups received remdesivir while the other received a placebo. Initial findings showed that the median recovery time for the group receiving the antiviral agent remdesivir was 11 days whereas the median recovery time for the placebo group was 15 days.

“These results are a great start in finding a treatment for COVID-19, but more studies are needed to find better treatments for COVID-19,” said Thomas Patterson, M.D., a Principal Investigator for the study at UT Health San Antonio.

While the results from the second phase of the clinical trials have yet to be released, scientists in the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio recently discovered how SARS-CoV-2 is able to enter a human’s cells with little to no indication of infection.

“It’s a camouflage,” said Yogesh K. Gupta, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Structural Biology, in a news release. “Because of the modifications, which fool the cell, the resulting viral messenger RNA is now considered as part of the cell’s own code and not foreign.”

Dr. Gupta and his team were able to decipher the structure of an enzyme produced by the virus that is used to modify its messenger RNA cap. This revolutionary finding is key for the creation of novel antiviral drugs that will slow the spread of COVID-19.

In the Department of Population Health Sciences, TAMEST Board President Amelie G. Ramirez, Dr.P.H. (NAM) has taken an active role in identifying the disparate effects that COVID-19 has had on minority communities.

“We know that COVID-19 has impacted our [Hispanic] community, but it also has worsened existing inequalities that we find among our Hispanic communities, as well as our communities of color,” said Dr. Ramirez, Professor and Chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences and Director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research, during her presentation at the Virtual American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting II. “The important thing is we all need to work together to make sure we are [supplying] our communities with the best information and most credible information as possible. We need to get our communities to believe in the importance of good science.”

In addition to her presentation, Dr. Ramirez moderated the recent TAMEST conversation on COVID-19: Health Disparities with several noted public health experts. The conversation further highlighted the inequalities in access to COVID-19 testing facilities, the disproportionate number of minorities in front-line roles and the impact of a virtual school year on children from low-income families.

UT Southwestern Medical Center

In collaboration with Texas Health Resources, UT Southwestern Medical Center will conduct a study on community prevalence of COVID-19 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The study is expected to be one of the nation’s largest on community spread.

“The DFW COVID-19 Prevalence Study will provide vitally important insights into the distribution and spread of COVID-19 throughout our community,” said Daniel K. Podolsky, M.D., President of UT Southwestern, in a recent interview. “A deeper understanding of who is most exposed and how the virus is spreading will help policy makers as well as civic and business leaders to formulate effective mitigation and containment strategies and highlight where we have opportunities to improve the health of local communities through equitable public health strategies. We are deeply grateful to all community members and supporters who have committed to help us advance this critical research.”

In addition to the community prevalence study, the medical center is actively participating in a range of COVID-19 clinical trials. One such trial is being conducted by Mamta K. Jain, M.D., a professor and speaker at the recent TAMEST Conversation on COVID-19: Treatment and Vaccine Development.

Dr. Jain is currently evaluating the safety and efficacy of remdesivir plus or minus baricitinib (JAK1 inhibitor) in patients with COVID-19 pneumonia. The trial hopes to determine if an antiviral by itself or paired with an anti-inflammatory is successful in calming the cytokine storm, an overabundance of cytokines produced by a patient’s overly active immune systems to combat the coronavirus infection, and thus serving as treatment for COVID-19 pneumonia.

Southwest Research Institute

At the beginning of the summer, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) received a $1.9 million dollar contract to develop a treatment for COVID-19. The Department of Defense High Performance Modernization Program is collaborating with SwRI to swiftly screen millions of drug compounds with SwRI’s Rhodium software.

“Rhodium is helping us quickly identify highly probable compounds from databases with existing drug candidates to narrow down our focus,” said Jonathan Bohmann, Ph.D., a SwRI Principal Scientist leading COVID-19 drug screenings, in a news release.

The identified drug candidates will be tested at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, another San Antonio organization SwRI has regularly worked with since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to this complex collaboration, SwRI researchers have been studying KN95 masks for efficacy against the coronavirus. According to a San Antonio Express-News article, the Particle Science and Technology Lab tested 11 different sets of masks labeled as being KN95 masks that met the U.S. minimum standard. The lab determined that eight of the 11 sets turned out to be counterfeit and failed to meet the U.S. standard for filtration efficiency.

“Not all N95 masks are created equal and this is incredibly important to note,” said SwRI’s Imad Khalek, Ph.D., Senior Program Manager-Emissions R&D, during a recent TAMEST Conversation on COVID-19: Manufacturing and Sterilizing Personal Protective Equipment. “Their efficiency can range from 95 percent to 99.5 percent to 99.9 percent and that is actually a major difference when it comes to filtration efficiency.”

Dr. Khalek’s lab will continue to test mask filtration efficiency until a vaccine is developed.

TAMEST is proud to represent these Texas research universities as our member institutions and continues to highlight the Texas scientific response to COVID-19 through our Forward Texas Digital Series. Read our coverage from earlier this year of the Texas Research Community’s Work to Combat COVID-19.

 

TAMEST The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas