COVID-19 research at KU is exploring medicinal answers and beyond

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo

The Integrated Science Building in the Central District of the University of Kansas is pictured on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

Colleges and universities across the United States have been at the forefront of researching COVID-19 and how to treat it since before the pandemic took hold in March.

At the University of Kansas, efforts are ongoing to find medical answers to fight the disease, but researchers are also focused on the real-time effects the unprecedented global health crisis is having on different areas of daily life.

On the medical side, Susan Lunte, a distinguished KU chemistry professor, is working with scientists at the University of Nebraska and Georgetown University to develop a point-of-care saliva test that can determine whether a person has antibodies against COVID-19.

Lunte told the Journal-World that she and her team were working with a national medical device company, Ni20, to develop and evaluate the cartridge for the antibody test and a portable reader that could quickly deliver results on the presence of antibodies to fight COVID-19.

Also in KU’s chemistry department, distinguished professor Steve Soper and his team are working on the production of a microfluidic device that can quickly detect the presence of the actual COVID-19 virus. Simon Atkinson, the vice chancellor for research at KU, told the Journal-World that the test was meant for COVID-19 now but that it would also be designed to be quickly adaptable for other viral infections.

Soper also co-founded a company called BioFluidica, which is housed partially in KU’s Bioscience and Technology Business Center, that is working to commercialize the test, Atkinson said.

“They’re pushing pretty hard to get the discovery out of the lab so that it’s useful,” he said. “Even if and when we have a vaccine, the need for rapid, reliable detection of COVID-19 is going to be just as acute, or maybe more important.”

Anthony Fehr, an assistant professor in KU’s department of molecular biosciences, has studied different variations of coronaviruses for years, a knowledge base that has aided his research on the new strain that prompted COVID-19.

Fehr told the Journal-World his department currently has four ongoing projects related to coronaviruses in general, and has used surrogate viruses with similar characteristics to COVID-19 in its research. That has allowed the department to extract an enzyme — a biological catalyst that allows the virus to infect human host cells — and recreate it from scratch.

From there, that will allow researchers to better understand what types of drugs or other therapeutic measures could be effective in inhibiting the enzyme from attacking human cells, which would render the virus basically useless.

Fehr said the department was in the process of publishing a scientific paper on the different characteristics of the enzyme they’ve extracted, which should greatly enhance research not only at KU but globally. The department is also in the beginning stages of testing tens of thousands of chemical compounds at once, seeking to find one that can prevent the enzyme from attacking host cells — a process called a high-throughput assay.

“The fact we got the assay going is a big finding, a big advancement in this field,” Fehr said.

In layperson’s terms, Fehr said the research at KU from a microbiology standpoint was using multiple approaches to understand the basic biology of how this COVID-19 specific enzyme actually works to find methods to slow it down.

In nonmedical research at KU, Atkinson praised the efforts of Donna Ginther and Bill Staples.

Ginther serves as the director of KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research, and in the era of COVID-19 has dedicated her focus on evaluating the actual state of Kansas’ economy and how it can recover.

Ginther produces monthly updates for policymakers on informed projections of actual unemployment rates versus reported unemployment rates, the status of the national and state economies, social distancing indexes, and many other factors related to the pandemic.

“She’s doing her best to help the state figure out what the Kansas economy looks like in the next months and years,” Atkinson said. “She’s also working with a couple of counties to get a more local picture of what’s going to happen to economic activity so those jurisdictions can plan.”

Staples and other KU researchers in late July received a grant to study digital homelessness — or those without a reliable connection to internet and phone services — and its impact in a pandemic. For example, people who normally use public libraries for their internet needs are unable to use those spaces in the same way because of social-distancing restrictions.

“One of the significant impacts of the pandemic is services that some people rely on because they don’t have access to their own internet … (it’s) been really difficult for those folks to access,” Atkinson said. “They’re left not just grappling with the same issues that other people have to grapple with, but with a great deal more difficulty accessing the services they need because of a lack of access to the public.”

Atkinson said he’s proud of the work that KU researchers have done in trying circumstances that initially shut down much in-person work when the pandemic began and that still restrict gatherings, which makes the completion of their work less efficient.

“There’s this kind of friction on the whole system that’s kind of slowing things down,” he said. “People are doing their best, but they’re running through their grant money as they’re trying to push against these things that are holding them back.”

KU has clearly communicated that it faces a number of financial challenges surrounding the pandemic, and research is not immune to those challenges. Atkinson said that in the greater scheme of things research funding wasn’t as immediate of a concern, but he is worried about what could happen if congressional leaders can’t pass an additional relief package soon.

“We’re very concerned that people will find themselves short of funds at some point unless the federal government comes through with some kind of relief for the research agencies,” he said. “There is this concern that we may find ourselves in six months’ time with people’s grant budgets run down and some kind of sticky mess in Washington that makes new funding difficult to get.”

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