WVCTSI funds eleven COVID-19 research projects

Thursday, July 9, 2020

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute is funding eleven research projects related to enhancing understanding of this public health crisis. The Pop-Up COVID-19 funding opportunity will provide up to $30,000 for projects that address urgent health care challenges, including prognostic and therapeutic studies, as well as the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic. Funding received must be utilized within a 12-month project period.

The project titled “Elucidation of Serine Threonine Kinase 11 Interacting Protein as a Predictor for SARS-CoV-2 Infection using a Rotavirus Model,” is being led by Crystal Boudreaux, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology in West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. This study is proposing the use of a known marker for virus infectivity as potential modulator for SARS-CoV-2 infection. This in-depth knowledge needed to identify promising signaling targets could afford an opportunity for the development of new therapeutic treatment options.

Wei Li, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in Marshall University’s School of Medicine, is leading the project dubbed “The Mechanistic Role of SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein in COVID-19-Associated Thrombosis.” This project seeks to study the mechanistic role of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein on thrombosis, one of the complications linked to COVID-19 severity. This would potentially improve patient outcomes and lead to the development of a novel therapy for the pandemic disease.

The funded project, “The Impact of Smoking, Vaping, Coal-Mining Status, and Chronic Lung Disease on the Severity of COVID-19 Pulmonary Infection: A Causal Machine Learning Approach,” is being led by Larissa Casaburi, M.D., associate professor in WVU’s Radiology Department. This project strives to determine if vaping, nicotine and coal dust inhalation increase the likelihood of COVID-19 infection.

Shipra Gupta, M.D., assistant professor in WVU’s Department of Pediatrics, is leading the next project dubbed “SUSPECT Study- Seropositivity in Unknown Subjects with Positive Exposure by COVID Testing.” West Virginia has been a unique state compared to the other states in the country. It was the last state to have a positive case of COVID-19 and had mandated social distancing measures before increased disease circulation. By performing serologic testing, this study intends to estimate the prevalence of infection in close contacts of known positive cases.

“To Assess the Incidence of COVID-19 Induced Procoagulant State, Mechanisms and Possible Treatment Options,” is another funded project. Sarah Hadique, M.D., associate professor in WVU’s School of Medicine, is the principal investigator of this project that seeks to investigate possible treatment options for those affected by COVID-19. By performing a prospective study of 30 critically ill COVID-19 patients, this study aims to identify, through blood work and data collection, areas to target with specific interventions. This could potentially be a lifesaving endeavor for the affected patients.

Another funded project led by Salik Hussain, Ph.D., assistant professor in WVU’s School of Medicine, aims to identify people at a greater risk of developing severe manifestation of COVID-19 and requiring critical care. The project titled “An Association of NLRX1 Expression and Single Nucleotide Polymorphism with Susceptibility and Severity of COVID-19,” seeks to correlate gene and protein expression of NLRX1 in whole blood with clinical picture of disease (mild, moderate, sever, critical), lung and systemic injury markers. It will evaluate the role of NLRX1 in pathogenesis of COVID-19 as well as genetic susceptibility in developing COVID-19. This study can pave the way for the development of NLRX1 agonism based therapies for curing COVID-19.

Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots.

In the next funded project “Evaluation of a Human Model for Deposition of Aerosolized Material within the Upper Aerodigestive Tract,” Brian Kellermeyer, M.D., assistant professor in WVU’s department of Otolaryngology/Head & Neck Surgery, will serve as the principal investigator. There are concerns that SARS CoV-2, deposits in the upper aerodigestive tract and that manipulation of this area can lead to aerosolization of the virus. The aerosolized virus could then lead to increased risk of transmission and potentially more severe disease. By assessing the effect of common otolaryngology practices, the proposed study seeks to develop a novel model to determine what degree of personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed.

Identifying the molecular interactions between SARS-CoV-2 and the human host cell is the focus of the next funded project: “Importance of Viral and Host MicroRNAs in the Pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2.” The principal investigator for this study is Ivan Martinez, Ph.D., associate professor in WVU’s School of Medicine and WVU Cancer Institute. His project strives to discover new viral-host molecular interactions that will lead to future prognostic and/or therapeutic tools urgently needed to fight this viral pandemic.

“Investigating Personal Protective Equipment Usage During Pandemics,” is another funded project led by Brad Price, Ph.D., an assistant professor in WVU’s College of Business and Economics. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has become a topic of national interest during the COVID- 19 pandemic. The surge of COVID-19 patients in metropolitan areas has put a strain on supply chains and made PPE scarce in many states. The core of this project lies in studying the differences in the matriculation of different populations requiring PPE usage. Understanding the change in these populations over time can shed the light on the impact of social distancing measures and PPE usage. A previously developed model used by this research team to forecast PPE demand will be further expanded for use in pandemic situations such as COVID-19.

Another funded project is titled “Coronavirus Induced Acute Kidney Injury: Prevention using Urine Alkalinization.” Ankit Sakhuja, M.D., assistant professor of medicine in WVU’s Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, will serve as the principal investigator for this study which will examine the effects of SARS-CoV-2, the official name of COVID-19, on the kidney. The project aims to address the direct involvement of the virus in severe acute kidney injury (AKI). It hypothesizes that while severe AKI does not appear to be a major part of the SARS-CoV-2 syndrome for most patients, when severe AKI does occur, mortality is very high. Interventions derived from this knowledge could reduce AKI severity as the disease progresses.

“COVID-19 Transmission, Life Cycle, and Outbreak Experiences: An Analysis of the Outbreak at Sundale Nursing Home,” is another funded project led by Carl Shrader, M.D., associate professor in WVU’s School of Medicine. This research project will address the critical gaps in our knowledge by examining the transmission dynamics and life cycle of COVID-19 within residents, staff, and their family members at the Sundale Nursing Home, in Morgantown, WV—the so-called “ground zero” for COVID-19 in West Virginia.

It’s exciting to see the remarkable breadth of topics reflected in these research projects. It is a clear demonstration of the vast expertise and creativity of our researchers across the state,” said Sally Hodder, MD, WVCTSI director and associate vice president for clinical and translational science at WVU.

This funding opportunity was announced in April 2020 and was made available to all individuals at AMC Institute/WVU Charleston, Marshall University, West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, and West Virginia University who hold a faculty appointment or equivalent.

Each research project will receive funding support from their respective home institutions. Funds are/will be made available upon completion of Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements, in summer 2020 and all projects are expected to be completed within one year.

WVCTSI Background

WVCTSI is funded by an IDeA Clinical and Translational grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (U54GM104942) to support the mission of building clinical and translational research infrastructure and capacity to impact health disparities in West Virginia.