KU researchers making an impact in push for COVID-19 solutions

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World File Photo

The Bioscience and Technology Business Center at the University of Kansas is pictured in June 2017.

As a global push continues to find a resolution to the COVID-19 crisis, colleges across the country are ramping up research efforts to help treat and track the contagious and deadly respiratory virus.

The University of Kansas has footprints in both areas.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration approved remdesivir — an Ebola drug developed by the pharmaceutical company Gilead — to treat COVID-19 on an emergency basis for the most critically ill patients. The drug has to be soluble, or dissolvable, so it can be injected through an IV, and it takes a special chemical to do that.

That chemical, called Captisol, was created and patented by KU’s pharmaceutical chemistry department in the early 1990s. Val Stella, a distinguished professor emeritus, and Roger Rajewski, a KU research professor, discovered the drug that is now used to solubilize 13 FDA-approved injectable products.

“Remdesivir is not a panacea but I think if used correctly and early rather than late in (COVID-19) treatment, it can save lives and shorten the time to recovery,” Stella told his colleagues in an email obtained by the Journal-World. “In a lot of ways, it can be used a little like Tamiflu for influenza.”

On Monday, KU announced that researchers in its School of Engineering were partnering with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on an experiment to determine whether COVID-19 can be detected in the wastewater systems of local communities.

“The idea is we can’t test everybody in our community, but we can test the catchment to see if COVID is present in our community, if it’s increasing or decreasing,” said Belinda Sturm, associate vice chancellor for research and a professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering.

The concept of tracking COVID-19 through wastewater is “cutting-edge,” Sturm said in a KU news release, and one that many states are trying to implement.

“We will grow the knowledge base on the use of this technique substantially, then cross over with health partners to develop our round two strategy on how to fight this virus,” she said.

Additionally, the Journal-World in March reported that Lawrence-based Clara Biotech, a company housed at KU’s Bioscience and Technology Business Center, was seeking a clinical trial for a new therapy that could drastically reduce the more dangerous symptoms of COVID-19.

James West, Clara Biotech’s CEO, said Tuesday those efforts were still underway.

“We have added a drug development expert to our team who is leading this part of the effort,” West said. “We are currently raising funds for the next steps at this time.”

Clara Biotech’s therapy uses exosomes, which allow cells in the body to communicate with one another, to directly target infected lung tissue. A specific class of exosomes, the company found, has regenerative and anti-inflammatory properties. If those exosomes can be isolated, they can be targeted therapeutically to limit lasting pulmonary complications that a COVID-19 patient might face.

As of Tuesday, 3.6 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed globally, 1.1 million of which are in the United States. The disease has killed over 252,000 people worldwide and over 69,000 people in the U.S.


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