Brown research teams mobilize to investigate COVID-19 solutions

With the goal of fast-tracking innovative research on COVID-19, Brown University has awarded a total of $350,000 to 15 teams of faculty researchers working rapidly to develop solutions that could impact the world’s response to the pandemic.

The awards from the University’s new COVID-19 Research Seed Fund, established in early April as novel coronavirus continued its spread across the nation, are intended to accelerate projects and help them attract additional funding. Selected after review by a panel of Brown faculty members, the research covers a wide range of disciplines from biology and medicine to engineering, computer science and economics.

“Helping to solve society’s most crucial problems is one of the University’s highest priorities,” Provost Richard M. Locke and Vice President for Research Jill Pipher wrote in announcing the awards to the Brown campus. “With the world in crisis, we are inspired to see the Brown community coming together to be part of the leading edge of COVID-19 research.”

Many of the awards are aimed at making an immediate and direct impact in Rhode Island, as a complement to a number of other community initiatives being led by Brown students, faculty and staff.

“Brown has a special responsibility to make valuable contributions to Rhode Island through our research and service, and advance innovation in our home community, and these funded projects will do that,” Locke and Pipher wrote.

Project goals range from new therapeutics to at-home COVID-19 tests to 3D-printed ventilators. Here is a look at four of the 15 research projects newly underway:

Long-Term Care

The pandemic has underscored the unique vulnerability of nursing homes and long-term care settings, which have seen high rates of infection and death. A seed award to a team led by Rosa Baier in the School of Public Health will fund a national survey of front-line staff in long-term care facilities to understand their responses to COVID-19 and help to improve the strategies such facilities employ in the future.

“We want to document front-line experiences and rapidly disseminate best practices,” said Baier, associate director of the Center for Long-Term Care Quality and Innovation. Hearing from nursing aides and others “will help us understand learn from what’s happening at the ground level.”

Baier and her colleagues will conduct the survey based on existing relationships with long-term providers across the country, forged through a relationship with the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living, which represents two-thirds of U.S. nursing homes.

Statewide Biorepository

Providing valuable research resources for the State of Rhode Island is the chief objective of the creation of the Lifespan/Brown COVID-19 Biobank based at Rhode Island Hospital.

“We are establishing an infrastructure for investigators who have novel ideas,” said principal investigator Edward Hawrot, professor of medical science at Brown and senior associate dean for the program in biology.

In the same way that blood sugar is used in diabetes, “physicians would love to be able to screen and find a biomarker” to identify those people who are most likely to suffer the severe complications of COVID-19, Hawrot said. That could help with diagnosis and treatment decisions, one of the goals of blood-based research.

Patients coming into the emergency departments at Rhode Island Hospital and the Miriam Hospital are being asked if they would like to volunteer to give blood samples for the research. The repository will include stored samples of blood from people testing positive or negative for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and researchers statewide will be able to apply to use samples in their COVID-19 related research, Hawrot said.

Hawrot’s collaborators are several members of the Warren Alpert Medical School faculty who have key clinical roles at Rhode Island Hospital, including Bharat Ramratnam, Lifespan’s chief science officer.

The project is also being aided by Advance-CTR, a statewide clinical and translational research hub based at Brown that supports biomedical researchers throughout Rhode Island. Working in coordination with the other 10 CTR groups around the country, the biorepository is already also paying dividends elsewhere, as Hawrot’s group is helping the CTR organization in Nebraska set up a similar biorepository plan.

Estimating Exposure

The goal of a group led by Amanda Jamieson, assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, is to determine how widespread the exposure to the virus has been in Rhode Island. Because of the large number of people who remain asymptomatic after being infected, “we really don’t have a good handle on how many people have been exposed,” Jamieson said.

Jamieson’s team has the most diverse makeup of the COVID-19 Research Seed Fund awardees. Besides her, it includes three researchers from pathology and laboratory medicine, and an economist. The team needed to be multidisciplinary because of the complexity and the need for a range of skills in getting samples, analyzing them and modeling data to reach conclusions, she said.

Jamieson said Emily Oster, professor of economics, has an important role because of her expertise with data analysis and her perspective as co-chair of Brown’s Healthy Fall 2020 task force, which is developing a public health plan with the goal reopening the campus safely in the fall.

The team also includes several Brown researchers who work at Rhode Island Hospital. The project will be use hundreds of blood samples, either already collected — possibly including some from the new biorepository — or in blood tests done locally.

Similar COVID-19 exposure studies are being done in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, and Jamieson plans to coordinate with those researchers to learn from their experiences.

Antiviral Drugs for Treatment

Looking for ways to inhibit the key SARS-CoV2 N protein and potentially help to develop antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19 is the objective of a team of four principal investigators combining their expertise in structural biology and virology.

“We are trying to understand how the viral genome is packed inside the virus by studying the structure of the Nucleocapsid (N) protein and its interaction with the RNA,” said Mandar Naik, assistant professor (research) of molecular pharmacology, physiology and biotechnology, “We aim to identify novel compounds that can interfere in the RNA binding or self-association of this protein. Our approach is to disrupt viral assembly to stop the spread of the virus.”

The group — which also includes Brown researchers Gerwald Jogl, Nicolas Fawzi and Walter Atwood — is conducting a large-scale computational analysis of possible drugs against targeted regions of the COVID-19 proteins. Ones that show promise will be tested for effectiveness, using nuclear magnetic resonance, crystallography, biophysical and functional assays.

“Antiviral drugs are the biggest need of the hour,” Naik said.