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COVID-19 Related Research Funds Awarded to Faculty

by Maggie Rotermund
Media Inquiries

Maggie Rotermund
Senior Media Relations Specialist
maggie.rotermund@slu.edu
314-977-8018

Reserved for members of the media.

The Saint Louis University Research Institute has awarded grants in its third round of funding to accelerate research growth at the University. This round of faculty grants supports several innovations in cross-discipline research related to COVID-19.

Coronavirus

This is the third round of grants to be awarded through the Research Growth Fund. The Research Growth Fund is designed to be a flexible source of funding for faculty across the University to help achieve their research and scholarship ambitions and make progress towards the goals of the Research Institute. The grant recipients from the first round and second round can be found here.  

The Saint Louis University Research Institute awarded more than $765,000 in April to support several innovations in research, along with critical, specialized equipment, in its latest round of funding. The funding includes the $300,000 for rapid COVID-19 research, which engages more than 40 faculty and student researchers across 20 departments. These grants represent some of that $300,000; there is still grant funding available.

Awardees include the SLU Center for Vaccine Development, which houses one of only nine Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Units leading the effort to find a COVID-19 vaccine; public health research; geospatial research; and emergency preparedness.

The four vaccine research awards will look at the collection of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), which are important for study of infection-induced B and T cells; developing novel T cell-based diagnostic tests and T cell-targeted COVID-19 vaccines; investigating whether BCG-trained immunity by vaccination affects SARS-CoV-2 infection; and developing the pseudotype SARS-Cov-2 spike (S) protein. Researchers will use COVID-19 convalescent patient sera for further validation. 

Funded Projects at a Glance

Antibody Response and Prevention of SARS-CoV-2 Fusion Activity

The team plans to develop the pseudotype SARS-Cov-2 spike (S) protein in Lentivirus or VSV for analyzing neutralizing antibody, fusion inhibition, antibody mediated inhibition or enhancement of virus replication. Researchers will use COVID-19 convalescent patient sera for further validation. They will cross-test peptides representing potential B-cell epitopes on S2 with patient convalescent sera in ELISA for competitive inhibition to analyze epitope specific response. The research team will also analyze isotope and half-life of antibody in patient sera. 

Principal investigator Ranjit Ray, Ph.D., is a professor of infectious diseases. Collaborators include professor Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D. and assistant professor Sarah George, M.D., both of Infectious Diseases; and James Brien, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology.

Changes in Gambling Behavior Due to COVID-19

COVID-19 has resulted in the mass cancellation of sporting events and closure of establishments. These closures have resulted in major impacts on human behavior, and they may have implications for those with gambling problems. As casinos have closed and sports betting is no longer possible, gamblers and those with problem gambling faced abrupt and forced changes to their behavior.

This study will examine the impact of these abrupt closures in individuals at-risk for and diagnosed with gambling disorder. Via online surveys, researchers will assess gambling behavior, perceptions, and potential compensatory responses in frequent gamblers over time.

This study will provide valuable information about forced abstinence and whether individuals shift in their addictive behaviors. It may also assist in the development of future prevention and intervention programs.

Principal investigator Jeremiah Weinstock, Ph.D. is an associate professor in SLU’s Department of Psychology. Carla J. Rash, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at University of Connecticut Health Center. Weinstock’s and Rash’s expertise is in gambling disorders and they have co-authored eight scientific papers together, including on substitution theory as it relates to gambling.

Comprehensive Evolutionary and Functional Elucidation of COVID-19 Related Viruses

A new pneumonia COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, SARS- CoV-2, has quickly become a global pandemic. To prevent and combat the disease, the need for a complete understanding of the evolution, biology and pathogenesis mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 has become extremely critical. However, current research on SARS-CoV-2 (and its related SARS-CoVs) faces two main obstacles: 1) multiple proteins encoded by the viral genomes remain enigmatic, making experimental designs difficult; 2) the high infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 makes wet-lab study even more challenging.

Researchers have designed a computational pipeline to study the evolution and function of COVID-19 related viruses by incorporating the fundamental concept of the evolutionary arms-race between viruses and hosts with a series of dedicated bioinformatics methods for sequence and structure analysis and modeling. Researchers plan to systematically study the evolution and function of COVID-19 related viruses:

  • Aim 1: Utilize several computational strategies to extensively identify the major evolutionary events (fast diversification, recombination, positive selection and gene transfers) that were associated with the evolution and emergence of SARS-CoV-2, especially those situated at the interface of host and viral interactions.
  • Aim 2: Systematically analyze the sequence and structural features of SARS-CoV- 2, define the domains of all viral proteins, and predict their structure and function through the distant homology of domains, and further understand their roles in the biology of the virus, including molecular mechanisms of viral infection, pathogenesis and transmission.

Investigator Dapeng Zhang, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology.

Effects of BCG Vaccination on Host Immunity Against SARS-CoV-2 Infection

Although several vaccines targeting the SARS-CoV-2 virus are moving to clinical trials, their availability is still 12-18 months away. Thus, a ready-to-use strategy or vaccine to prevent or reduce the mortality of COVID-19 is urgent. Recent epidemiological study indicate that tuberculosis vaccine BCG, or bacille Calmette-Guerin, may reduce morbidity and mortality of COVID-19 patients. As a result, clinical trials are just initiated in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. to test the effects of BCG vaccine on mortality of COVID-19 patients. So far, there is no direct evidence supporting the protective role of BCG in SARS-CoV-2 infection. This in vitro study will investigate whether BCG-trained immunity by vaccination affects SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Principal investigator Jianguo Liu, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of infectious diseases. Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., professor of infectious diseases, will collaborate.

The Etiology of Staying Home

On March 16, 2020, the White House issued COVID-19 guidance having as its first and primary point, “if you feel sick, stay home.” On March 23, St. Louis City and St. Louis County added to that guidance with lock down directives ordering area residents to stay at home, except for groceries, medical care and essential activities. Such directives come at the same time as public health decisions to reserve hospitalization for the most acute cases with others sent home to self-treat. Taken together, these and other public policy and epidemiological measures have put home, and staying at home, at the center of our public health response to the pandemic.

Home, has thus become a particularly important but completely unstudied and taken-for-granted element of the public health response. At the same time, lock down and stay-at-home orders have made keeping up with rent and mortgage payments all the more difficult for many.  The new burden economic fallout and resulting housing insecurity from COVID-19 is added to the already-burgeoning problem of homelessness in U.S. cities and threatens a vicious circle of pandemic spread exacerbating housing insecurity, which in turn heightens vulnerability to the pandemic.

This project will look at the impact of COVID-19 on housing and housing security in St. Louis, including but not limited to the impact of homelessness on COVID-19 spread and the impact of interventions to stymie the spread of COVID-19 on access to housing. It will work to develop sensible interventions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on housing security.

The project will also study applicable laws and legal doctrine, including the new federal CARES legislation which provides legal parameters for eviction actions during the COVID-19 crisis for any landlords who receive HUD, Section 8, or other federal subsidies. The legal side of the research will accumulate a database of local initiatives. It will also incorporate a literature review.

Investigator Monica Eppinger, J.D., is the director of the Center for International and Comparative Law.

Health Misinformation, Media Exposure, Uncertainty, and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Citizens receive inconsistent messages about COVID-19 risk factors, spread, fatalities, and overall impact. Media reports offer health and political messages that are often contradictory, fueling public uncertainty and anxiety. Thus, in managing the outbreak of COVID-19, one of the most pressing challenges facing society is to combat confusion and misinformation with clear, accurate data and resources about risks and prevention of the disease.

Research collected during previous health crises provides some insight on the public’s consumption of health information, as well as their preferred channels for information about crisis directives, and their intent to seek information about preventative measures like vaccines. One recent study has even examined the interaction between news media exposure, public awareness and disease dynamics during epidemic outbreaks. However, a comprehensive, theoretically driven study examining different channels of information exposure along with other predictors of information seeking and preventative behaviors, particularly during a global health crisis has yet to be accomplished.

Researchers will gather information about predictors that are crucial for creating public health initiatives to mitigate the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic caused by confusion, anxiety, and misinformation.

Principal investigator Jennifer E. Ohs, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication. Collaborators include Ilwoo Ju, Ph.D., Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University; Amber Hinsley, Ph.D., associate professor of communications at SLU;  and Taehwan Park, Ph.D., Pharmacy Administration and Public Health; St. John’s University.

Impact of Changes during the COVID-19 Pandemic on Activity, Anxiety, Stress and Sleep in Older Adults

Older adults are vulnerable to functional decline, limited mobility, and challenges getting out beyond their homes, even before the stay-at-home requirements in the time of COVID-19. Decreased mobility contributes to lower physical activity levels and increased obesity, chronic disease, falls, and fear of falling. Further, limited social connections and a decrease in diversity of life activities can lead to loneliness, isolation, depression, and poor quality of life. Poor sleep, including short or long duration, poor quality, irregular timing, and circadian rhythm disorders may lead to a variety of chronic health conditions including psychiatric disorders, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and disability.

To learn more about how older adults are coping with changes in activity and sleep during the pandemic, we propose a mixed method study. We will conduct an online survey of community dwelling older adults, followed by telephone interviews with a targeted subsample of participants. The purpose of this study is to examine the experiences of older adults during the time of COVID-19 related to stress, anxiety, activity, and sleep.

Principal investigator Helen Lach, Ph.D., is a professor of nursing in the Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing. Collaborators include Devita Stallings, Ph.D., an associate professor of nursing in the Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing; Rebecca Lorenz, Ph.D. of the University of Buffalo School of Nursing; and Janice Palmer, Ph.D., of Webster University Nursing.

Large-scale collection of COVID-19 donor PBMC

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed enormous public health and economic burdens on the entire world. To move forward with their important research, these investigators require clinical specimens from individuals recovering from SARS- CoV-2 infection. The Center for Vaccine Development (CVD) and CVD laboratories have the experience and capabilities to obtain important samples for SLU research. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) are important for study of infection-induced B and T cells and only limited numbers can be collected from a single blood draw. The purpose of this effort is to obtain sufficient quantities of PBMC to disseminate to multiple SLU investigators, allowing them to optimize COVID-19 specific assays and generate preliminary data from 4-6 volunteers to strengthen COVID-19 applications to outside funding agencies.

Principal investigator Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of infectious diseases. Collaborators include Ranjit Ray, Ph.D., professor of infectious diseases; Richard DiPaolo, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology and immunology; David Ford, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology and immunology; and Sarah George, M.D., assistant professor of infectious diseases.

Privacy-Aware Web and Mobile Apps for COVID-19 Tracking

The societal efforts in restricting the COVID-19 spread, in part, involve social distancing and avoiding infection-growing hot spots. These efforts are being reinforced by several applications that use Smartphones to track users’ locations and social interactions. More specifically, these applications tap into users’ phones and medical records to allow the public health authorities to identify and quarantine presumably positive patients. Such user tracking and contact-tracing applications will pose a severe privacy breach, despite their competency in saving millions of lives.

Several proposals are emerging on how to implement privacy-aware tracking systems. The mainstream approach suggests utilizing GPS, Bluetooth, and other modes of communication on people's phones to detect past contacts with individuals diagnosed with the virus. Symptom tracking is another emerging application, in which users fill in a profile about themselves and mark the symptoms they have (or have not had) daily and share it with the authorities. Moreover, symptom tracking applications tend to be opt-in, which results in low participation due to users' privacy concerns.

To help to restrict the COVID-19 spread while preserving users' privacy, we propose a methodology based on Wi-Fi fingerprinting, k-anonymity, trusted execution environments such as Intel SGX and other techniques, to privately allow users to avoid COVID-19 hot spots without sharing their locations, or sharing it in a secure, i.e., encrypted way.

To accomplish this, researchers will build fully decentralized applications (DApp) on top of secure distributed systems such as a distributed ledger. The systems will store the outbreak hotspots in a decentralized and private database, allowing users to check if they are in a dangerous area while keeping their location private. Researchers will also build and update the user's geospatial and geo-temporal movement maps. The maps will remain on the user device.

Reza Tourani, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of computer science and Flavio Esposito, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of computer science.

Real-Time COVID-19 Symptom Tracking Among Front-line Workers

SARS CoV-2 coronavirus, the virus responsible for COVID-19, has been identified as a new and emerging infectious disease resulting in widespread infection globally. Recently declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), the fears related to this virus, both in personal and economic health, have spread internationally. With the WHO urging countries to brace for the impacts of COVID-19 on their population, the study aims to identify how at-risk individuals are experiencing and managing infection.

The study will assess how to best utilize real-time data to track symptoms and locations to best understand where and who are most affected by COVID-19. By using individual reports, rather than passive measures of location, researchers can better understand human experiences with the infection throughout their daily lives. This study aims to utilize self-reported intraday measures of COVID-19 symptom and how others may have exposed throughout each day.

This study will ask that participants to download an app and answer questions throughout the day and week about their symptoms, psychological mood and behaviors. The app will also provide a health care location near the participant, as well as inform participants as they travel into new locations the COVID-19 prevalence of the county in which they are currently traveling.

Front line workers are at the highest risk for COVID-19 infection and transmitting it to their community and family members. The at-risk population in this study aims to assess staff exposed to the virus, primarily in grocery store staff.  Specifically, we this study aims to:

  • Measure intraday symptoms of individuals working at grocery stores over three months who are at risk of COVID-19;
  • Identify patterns of infection using indoor and outdoor global positioning systems GPSO to see how they may geographically relate to community living spaces that may place individuals at especially increased risk of mortality-related COVID-19; and
  • Encourage COVID-19 testing with location referrals based on location and availability occurring as symptoms are monitored through our intraday data collection app may monitor and identify these changes.

This study will leverage the importance of sharing location-based data in combination of symptoms and social networks in developing interventions aimed at reducing infectious disease transmission. These real-time data if used appropriately, can inform where and who is at risk for infection, when and where to suggest testing to participants enrolled in the study and where to link them to care.

Principal investigator Enbal Shacham, Ph.D. is a professor of behavioral science and health education in the College for Public Health and Social Justice. Collaborators include Flavio Esposito, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science; Stephen Scroggins, program evaluation coordinator; Roberto Coral, research assistant in computer science; and Timothy Wiemken, Ph.D., associate professor in SLUCOR. 

Specimen Collection to Study SARS-CoV-2-specific Cell Responses

New diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics are urgently needed to blunt the effects of the current pandemic caused by rapid dissemination of a novel betacoronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Our group is working with multiple investigators to develop novel T cell-based diagnostic tests and T cell-targeted COVID-19 vaccines. In collaboration with EpiVax, who are leaders in the field of immunoinformatics, we have submitted concepts and applications to the NIH and BARDA to identify novel T cell targets expressed by SARS-CoV-2, as well as those shared between the highly pathogenic betacoronaviruses SARS and MERS. We will perform in vitro testing to identify which of the putative epitopes elicit responses from T cells from individuals previously infected with SARS-CoV-2, and to aid in the development of T cell-based diagnostic tests, similar to those used for TB. Furthermore, our collaborators have identified SARS-CoV-2 sequences with high potential for development of potent T cell-targeted vaccines. We are currently developing a clinical vaccine trial concept with EpiVax. We will stimulate PBMC collected from SARS-CoV-2-experienced volunteers with SARS-CoV-2 peptides described above in overnight assays as we have done for other pathogens including TB, influenza, T. cruzi, and Zika virus.

Principal investigator Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of infectious diseases. Collaborators include Ranjit Ray, Ph.D., professor of infectious diseases; Richard DiPaolo, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology and immunology; David Ford, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology and immunology; and Sarah George, M.D., assistant professor of infectious diseases. 

Technology-Assisted Intervention to Address Loneliness and Social Isolation Among Older Adults

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness and social isolation among older adults had reached “global epidemic” status and has significantly escalated, particularly for older adults living alone in the community. Through the SLU Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program, the researchers have adapted Circle of Friends, an evidence-based 12-week group intervention developed in Finland for delivery in the U.S. The pandemic has raised awareness that alternative strategies are needed to maintain socially connectedness. 

While some forms of technology were in use prior to the pandemic, most interventions are in-person group meetings. It has been predicted that isolation strategies, particularly for older persons, may last into 2022. To provide support for older adults during and after COVID-19, the researchers plan to develop a computer-based platform to provide moderated “Circle of Friends,” and previously SLU-developed exercise and caregiver support groups. The team will develop an online screening program to diagnose the causes of frailty with the SLU FRAIL scale and its treatable causes. A HIPAA-compliant comprehensive cloud platform delivery system is needed to enable older persons and the moderate to see and interact with one other. 

Principal investigator Marla Berg-Wager, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Social Work. Collaborator John E. Morley, M.D., is a professor of geriatric medicine in the School of Medicine.

3D Printed User-Specific N-95 Respirator Alternative

The team will develop an alternative to an N95 respirator, for use in the event of a severe shortage at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. The design would consist of a permanent 3D-printed shell that is customized to the user, by incorporating an optical face scan of the user, and an exchangeable filter. The researchers will investigate both approved and experimental filter materials, using a quantitative tester. Faces will be scanned and respirators designed and printed. Each user will undergo a quantitative fit test using the same type of machine that is used by SLU employee health. 

The researchers hope to validate the concept that a custom-designed 3D printed respirator can pass a quantitative fit test. A device like this could potentially reduce overall cost, and could be personalized in many ways to a particular user, including shape and color.

Principal investigator Andrew Hall DSc, is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Collaborators include Andrew Chateaux Ph.D., chemistry post-doc; Keith Pereira, M.D., assistant professor of radiology.

The Saint Louis University Research Institute was established in 2018 through a historic $50 million gift to the University from Dr. Jeanne and alumnus and trustee Rex Sinquefield, the SLU Research Institute provides funding through the Sinquefield Center for Research Inc., the purpose of which is to support the University in achieving the institute's goals.

Learn More About SLU’s Research Growth Institute