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

Selda Gunsel Profile

Researchers in Texas have answered the world’s call and stepped up to partner with the greater research community to help combat the spread of the COVID-19.

From reworking a vaccine meant to combat SARS nearly 20 years ago, to collaborating with other labs in Texas and around the world, to trying to secure new answers on how COVID-19 spreads and how communities should react, our state’s scientific leaders are working around the clock to find answers and mitigate harm.

“During this time of global pandemic, TAMEST is thankful to the greater research community for their work confronting the COVID-19 virus and communicating evidence-based scientific information to the public,” said TAMEST Board President Amelie G. Ramirez, DrPH, UT Health San Antonio (NAM), and TAMEST Board Vice President David E. Daniel, Ph.D., The University of Texas at Dallas (NAE), in a joint statement.

“As our members and institutions mobilize to stop the spread of COVID-19 and work to discover effective treatments and vaccines, we are honored to support their service on the front lines fighting this infectious disease. This important work will help save lives and protect our way of life during this and future threats.”

TAMEST is proud of the work our academic and industry partners in Texas are doing to help curb the spread of COVID-19:

Baylor College of Medicine 

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine are working to combat the coronavirus by revitalizing past research. TAMEST Member Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told NBC News that his team created a vaccine after the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s that could work against COVID-19.

According to Hotez, he hopes their vaccine could cross-protect against both diseases because COVID-19 and SARS are similar. While he has applied for proposals to move their vaccines into clinical testing, they are still waiting for federal funding to move forward.

“It’s tragic that we won’t have a vaccine ready for this epidemic,” Hotez said while testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in March. “Practically speaking, we’ll be fighting these outbreaks with one hand tied behind our backs.”

According to KXAN, Hotez said federal funding will speed things up for groups like his, but the reason there’s no ‘quick fix’ is for people’s safety. Some testing has revealed that certain respiratory virus vaccines can, unfortunately, make symptoms worse.

While simultaneous working to find a cure, Hotez is also dedicated to informing the public. He has given hundreds of interviews in the last month in an effort to spread accurate information about the virus and encourage citizens to do their due diligence to prevent its spread.

Interviews range from PBS News, Texas Monthly, the Houston Chronicle, The New York Times, USA Today and everything in between.

Houston Methodist

According to Sealy News, Houston Methodist was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin the first experimental plasma treatment that may aid in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. The treatment, convalescent serum therapy, consists of using plasma from a recovered patient to introduce antibodies to a patient who has not yet recovered.

“Convalescent serum therapy could be a vital treatment route, because unfortunately there is relatively little to offer many patients except supportive care, and the ongoing clinical trials are going to take a while. We don’t have that much time,” said Eric Salazar, M.D., Ph.D., a physician scientist with Houston Methodist Research Institute.

In a statement released by Houston Methodist, the hospital said the treatment “dates back to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, but convalescent plasma therapy was also tested in various other widespread illnesses, including the more recent Ebola and SARS epidemics. In addition, the experimental therapy was used on five COVID-19 patients in China, with early reports indicating the treatment was beneficial.”

In addition to the convalescent serum therapy, the hospital has had more recent success with the antiviral drug Remdesivir. According to a Houston Methodist Press Release, COVID-19 patients who participated in a clinical trial with this promising drug are responding quickly to the treatment. 

“Early results are promising, and that is important right now. Much of what we are learning about COVID-19 management is centered around preventing quick deterioration. Timing is everything. I can’t say for certain they would have been intubated otherwise, but it’s encouraging,” said infectious diseases pharmacist Katherine K. Perez, Pharm. D.

Rice University

Taking notes from ‘MacGyver’, engineers at Rice University constructed an emergency ventilator that could aid in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Named ApolloBVM, the device consists of 3D-printed parts that can be easily replicated now that Rice has made the plans online and freely available to anyone.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Rohith Malya, M.D., told the Wall Street Journal that the device “weighs 8 pounds and could be reproduced for less than $200 each. Ordinary ventilators, which blow oxygenated air directly into a patient’s lungs at a controlled rate and volume, can weigh hundreds of pounds and cost tens of thousands of dollars. They take five to 10 days to manufacture, depending on global supply-chain processes, and require hundreds of different parts.”

In another department, a team of Rice researchers are repurposing a tool they designed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Used to survey more than 20,000 hurricane survivors, the Texas Flood Registry has sparked the researchers to create a registry for COVID-19. Based on feedback from public health officials, the tool will track information beneficial to responding to the pandemic, according to KHOU-11.

“One of the things I say to my kids all the time is if you want to be helpful to people, you have to help them in the way that they say is helpful,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, Ph.D., Professor of  Statistics and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at Rice University.

Texas A&M University

In order to mitigate the high demand in medical supplies, doctors turned to Engineering Medicine (EnMed), a collaboration between Texas A&M University and Houston Methodist Hospital. Michael R. Moreno, Ph.D., EnMed’s Director of Innovation, told Texas A&M University news that the program has created and delivered 200 3D-printed diffusers to aid in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

“The spacer, or diffuser, that we created will allow the doctors to use metered-dose inhalers to treat diagnosed and suspected COVID-19 patients who are not yet in need of ventilator therapy, without using nebulizers that may aerosolize the virus,” Dr. Moreno said.

Poised to produce even more of these critical devices, TAMEST Board Member and Executive Dean of EnMed, Roderic Pettigrew, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM, NAE), said, “EnMed has risen to the occasion right here in Houston to serve people in need. We’re working with our colleagues at Houston Methodist Hospital in order to devise practical solutions to real problems on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients.”

In addition to the EnMed program’s response to COVID-19, chemists at Texas A&M University are working on several drugs to combat the virus. Professor and Gradipore Chair in Chemistry Wenshe Ray Liu, Ph.D., the first person to identify experimental drug Remdesivir as a potential COVID-19 treatment, and his team of researchers have devoted their lab to searching for therapies that could aid in the fight against the coronavirus.

“The motivation that drove us was the rush against time to find alternative medicines that might be put in use to fight against the virus when it spread to the U.S.,” Dr. Liu told Texas A&M Today.

Joining the search, TAMEST Member Marcetta Y. Darensbourg, Ph.D. (NAS), Distinguished Professor and Davidson Chair in Science at Texas A&M University, will collaborate with the lab as they explore how additional drugs can prevent the replication of coronaviruses in human cells in addition to counteracting the viruses’ effect on human plasma. 

Texas Tech University

FiberTectTM, a decontamination wipe developed by Texas Tech University researcher Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., could aid in the clean-up of COVID-19 contaminated body fluid.

According to Texas Tech Today, the wipe is “a three-layer, nonwoven wipe that features an activated carbon core sandwiched between absorbent top and bottom layers.” Hospitals and ambulances frequently use the wipe as part of a dry contamination method.

“Highly porous carbon in the structure can trap the vapors and aerosols in which microbes are contained. The wipe structure is flexible and can take the shape of the objects to be cleaned. The three-ply structure without glue helps this effective cleaning,” said Dr. Ramkumar.

The University of Texas at Arlington

At The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), Mathematics Professor Christopher Kribs, Ph.D., told CBS DFW that by studying the spread of viruses through math models, we can understand how COVID-19 infections can grow exponentially if the public does not adhere to social distancing measures.

“Regardless of what the number is, whether it’s one-and-half or 17, that factor gets multiplied with every period of time that passes and that’s what leads to exponential growth,” said Dr. Kribs.

Southwest Research Institute 

San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has teamed up with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and others for screening and drug development. SwRI is using a virtual screening tool to identify drugs that may be used to treat patients who contract COVID-19. The screening tool called Rhodium recently evaluated the effectiveness of two million drugs by analyzing how protein structures in the virus might bind with drug compounds.

SwRI President Adam Hamilton told San Antonio press in February that the tool has helped researchers identify 10 drugs that could potentially be effective in slowing or preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We’re working as fast as we can now internally—[and] also with some of our San Antonio partners—to see if we can actually demonstrate that these drugs are effective when used to prevent or help minimize the impact of coronavirus on people,” Hamilton said.

The University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory 

In Galveston, Director of The University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory James Le Duc, M.D., told Nexstar media that they currently have three potential vaccines in development.

“We’ve provided it to our hospital, [and] the hospital is now validating it,” Le Duc told lawmakers of the Texas House Public Health Committee in March.

Le Duc said he is looking at research produced from the SARS epidemic and is working with a goal to create a pan-coronavirus vaccine. This vaccine would protect the public from not just one virus but could work broadly and “perhaps even protect people from coronaviruses that haven’t even emerged into the population yet.”

The laboratory has also developed a reverse genetic system allowing researchers to move more quickly in developing and evaluating a potential treatment for COVID-19, according to UTMB Research Scientist Xuping Xie, Ph.D. in university media. “UTMB will be very happy to make this technology widely available to both academia and industry researchers working to quickly develop countermeasures,” Dr. Xie said.

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.

As soon as reports of COVID-19 emerged, McLellan’s team began mapping a “spike protein,” which is the part of the virus that attaches itself to human cells, according to KXAN.

“We’ve been disseminating these structures [maps of ‘spike protein’] to people all over the world,” he said. “The company Moderna has already shipped an initial lot of their vaccine encoding for our stabilized spike protein to our collaborators at the NIH.”

Moderna began its first clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States in mid-March. A challenge for researchers is that the typical timeline for vaccine development is 12 to 18 months, making it difficult to develop a vaccine in time to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The College of Pharmacy at UT Austin has begun its own research into repurposing niclosamide to combat COVID-19. According to UT News, the collaborative research team is investigating how niclosamide, among other FDA-approved drugs, could be redesigned in order to be inhaled directly into the lungs and hopefully prove effective in treating serious symptoms of the coronavirus.

“One significant advantage of using an existing drug to treat COVID-19 is it can lessen the time it would take to get it into the hands of doctors and patients,” said Robert O. Williams III, Ph.D., Division Head of Molecular Pharmaceutics and Drug Delivery in the College of Pharmacy. “Outcomes can improve if an existing drug can prove a viable therapeutic option with a new delivery method, lessening the mortality rate and severe medical complications stemming from the virus.”

Joining the team of researchers is TAMEST 2020 Innovating Texas Poster Challenge winner in Academia Ashlee D. Brunaugh, Ph.D. Candidate, UT Austin.

The University of Texas at Dallas

In the midst of vaccine research and pandemic modeling, the health care system is experiencing an extreme shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). In March, research labs at The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), “delivered more than 72,000 gloves, 1,100 face masks and 69 N95 masks provided by faculty members from across the University’s schools and laboratories” to Parkland Health & Hospital System according to a UTD Today article.

“As we’ve transitioned some of our research activities to functions that can be done remotely — such as writing papers and analyzing data — our laboratories have supplies that can be essential for maintaining the health and well-being of the DFW community and our health care providers,” said Joseph Pancrazio, Ph.D., Vice President for Research and Professor of Bioengineering at UT Dallas.

The UT Dallas Office of Research has led the ongoing drive for critical supplies only to see an increase in their collection of PPE by almost double. The office has expanded their donations to be delivered to UT Southwestern Medical Center and Methodist Richardson Medical Center according to UTD Today.

“Under normal circumstances, UT Dallas’ mission of teaching, research and service includes service to the community and the world,” Dr. Pancrazio said. “In these extraordinary times, it is imperative that we, as a Tier One research university, stand and lead during a situation that affects our region and beyond.”

The University of Texas at San Antonio

In San Antonio, compounds developed at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) are currently on their way to testing on coronavirus-infected cells at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Doug Frantz, Ph.D., Chemistry Professor and Co-Founder of the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery, told the San Antonio Express-News that the compounds “include some 250 formulas related to hydroxychloroquine.”

It is not yet known if hydroxychloroquine can be used to treat COVID-19. With more than a decade of experience in developing treatments for UTSA, Dr. Frantz said results from testing are expected in the coming weeks.

UT Health San Antonio

At UT Health San Antonio, researchers have focused on several projects to effectively create a COVID-19 vaccination. One of these projects is in collaboration with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed). This collaboration studies a spike protein’s neutralizing antibodies.

“You can sort of see it as a lock and a key. The spike protein is the key that needs to bind to the lock on the host cell. If you can prevent the key from going into the lock, you can prevent infection. That is what a neutralizing antibody does,” Evelin Bunnick, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, Molecular Genetics, told UT Health San Antonio News.

In conjunction with this project, a UT Health San Antonio collaborator, Paolo Casali, M.D., Zachry Foundation Distinguished Professor, has created mice with a full human immune system (H-Mice). These mice will be immunized with the spike protein to see what antibodies are produced.

“Many people around the country are looking for vaccines, but they’re not doing it quite the way we are. Our niche is that we can track infection in our humanized H-Mice and compare it to the immune response in humans. Then we can go back and test what we find in humans in the humanized mouse. No one else has that capability,“ said Robert Hromas, M.D., Professor and Dean of the Long School of Medicine, UT Health San Antonio.

In addition to these collaborations, another study on cardiac damage caused by COVID-19 has begun. Of the patients who have contracted the coronavirus, one-fifth are experiencing severe heart damage.

“One of my concerns is that there are other viral infections that lead to longstanding heart muscle dysfunction,” Allen S. Anderson, M.D., Professor and Chairman of Cardiology in the Long School of Medicine, told UT Health San Antonio. “We don’t know enough about this virus to understand what the long-term implications are, but it’s something we are going to have to watch.”

University of Houston

At the University of Houston, Seamus Curran, Ph.D., Physics Professor and CEO of nano-coatings company Integricote, has begun testing a water repellant on a multitude of materials to aid in stopping the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Explaining how the water repellant would work, Dr. Curran told Houstonia Magazine, “The virus which is contained in liquid flies off the surface with the coating. If they don’t stick, the virus doesn’t stick. If the virus doesn’t stick, it doesn’t sit there to be breathed in by you.”

In addition to the repellant, the physics professor is also developing a non-toxic, environmentally friendly solution that can be used to kill the virus on everyday surfaces upon contact. The development of these two solutions have multi-disciplinary uses in hospitals, to apartment complexes, to various transportation hubs.

“We’re going after that virus so that every time somebody coughs, it lands on a surface, and that surface is toxic to the virus but OK for us,” said Dr. Curran.   

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

For the first time, researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have mapped areas within Texas’ major cities where residents are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and becoming hospitalized, according to UTHealth.

The team of researchers first looked at the greater Houston region to project areas of greater risk based on data provided by the American Community Survey five-year summary from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the 500 Cities Project from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The research team then expanded this analysis to Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.

“We hope this report can highlight what regions should be assigned priority in outreach efforts from hospitals and community-based organizations, as well as the resource planning and allocation decisions of local authorities,” said Stephen H. Linder, Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Institute for Health Policy at UTHealth School of Public Health, who led the study.

In April, UTHealth joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on their mission to develop search engines that would aid COVID-19 research.

UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics Assistant Professor Kirk Roberts, Ph.D., told UTHealth News there is a great need to solve information overload when it comes to COVID-19. “To help solve this information overload problem, the best thing to do is to develop a search engine much like Google or PubMed where clinicians and scientists can access evidence-based COVID-19 information they need very quickly,” said Dr. Roberts.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

A Houston company is developing a drug that could protect people in close contact with patients who have COVID-19 from contracting the illness.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the drug is delivered as an aerosol known as PUL-042, and was created by biopharmaceutical company Pulmotect, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MD Anderson) and Texas A&M University. Pulmotect, MD Anderson and Texas A&M have worked together to develop the drug for more than a decade, and if successful could request expedited approval in the next six months. If approved, it could provide short-term immunization for doctors, nurses and people in close proximity to COVID-19 patients until a proper vaccine is developed.

UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW)

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) in Dallas are partnering with international collaborators to find protein that potentially inhibits coronavirus. Associate Professor of Microbiology at UTSW John Schoggins, Ph.D., explained in a statement that his research reveals that the LY6E protein impairs the coronavirus’ ability to initiate infection, which could lead to treatments for the disease.

“Remarkably, this potent inhibitory effect carried over to all the coronaviruses we tested, including those responsible for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) outbreak in 2003, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in 2012, and the recently emerged causative agent of COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2,” he said

University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC)

A professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) in Fort Worth is collaborating with an international team to test whether stem cells can combat COVID-19 pneumonia. UNT HSC Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience Kunlin Jin, Ph.D. is leading the team from North Texas and says early signs are promising.

“Our study showed that intravenous infusion of clinical-grade human mesenchymal stem cells is a safe and efficient approach for treating patients with COVID-19 pneumonia, including in elderly patients displaying severe pneumonia,” Jin told Dallas Innovates.

Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI)

In San Antonio, Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TRBI) is currently working on five separate research projects to help develop safe vaccines and antiviral medication to combat COVID-19. According to The Rivard Report, TBRI is looking at the virus to determine what characteristics are needed for the virus to replicate in a human and for it to actually cause disease. From diagnostics to in vitro testing and animal studies, to eventual human clinical trials, TBRI will need to still do more than a dozen rounds of testing on the virus before any vaccine will reach the public.

“Our team is rallying to meet the needs of our scientific community in developing animal models, studying the virus and examining potential diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to combat the new coronavirus,” TBRI said in a statement. “Scientists here have begun their own research, and we are working with collaborators worldwide to execute leading research into COVID-19.”

The Center for Disease Controls (CDC) website has up-to-date information on COVID-19 and how to protect yourself and your community. 

 

TAMEST The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas