COVID-19 Response Fund Boosts SMHS Research Efforts

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Beakers of multicolored liquid labeled 'biohazard' on a lab table

It’s hard to recall a more important time for groundbreaking scientific research when it comes to the health and safety of the United States than in the past six months; by October the country had recorded more than 7 million cases of the novel coronavirus, and the global toll passed 1 million fatalities. The George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) is an integral part of the effort to both better understand COVID-19 and find cures for this deadly virus.

To further boost that research, the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) as well as SMHS and the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW, will provide seed-funding for research projects focused on COVID-19. The projects were selected as part of a FY21 COVID-19 Research Fund competition. Some of the funding for the SMHS projects also came from  the GW COVID-19 Response Fund.

Overall there were 67 applications across eight GW schools for the competition. Of those projects, 12 were chosen for funding, four of which are projects being developed by researchers at the medical school.

The projects also will be supported by a generous gift from Virginia Keller Gray, MS ’70, who passed away in 2018. Gray, who was a graduate of the GW School of Business, made the gift in 2017 to the GW Cancer Center and SMHS with a wish it be used to advance scientific research.

“Through this competition, we’ve identified studies that cover a range of COVID-19 research, from antibody response to the virus to genomics and health disparities,” said Robert Miller, PhD, interim vice dean for research and academic affairs and Vivian Gill Distinguished Research Professor at SMHS. The competition, he added, is “designed to support new research projects and scholarly activities in the exploration and understanding of COVID-19.”

COVID-19 Specimen Bank

Research on COVID-19 would be difficult to conduct without samples from patients who have suffered from the virus, and in early March, Aileen Chang, MD, MSPH, assistant professor of medicine, and Adrienne Poon, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine, helped to develop a COVID-19 specimen bank to provide samples to researchers across both SMHS and GW. 

Through those samples, Poon said, more than 13 project proposals have been submitted by research faculty to investigate topics including immune response such as for antibodies and T-cells, impact of the renin-angiotensin system, impact on those with diabetes, and hypercoagulability.

With the funding, Poon said, they will now be able to grow the bank by obtaining needed supplies and enrolling an additional 50 patients to provide samples to the bank. In addition, the funding will support research and laboratory teams so that the bank can continue to expand and support additional pilot studies and serve a stimulus for innovative COVID-19 research at GW.

“It means so much to everyone involved in this project to have the support of donors,” she added. “COVID-19 surprised the world and there is so much that is unknown about the virus that causes it. Donor support for supplies and research and laboratory staff is critical to help our investigators develop the basic science studies that are urgently needed to better understand the virus.”

Some of the many researchers using the bank include Norman Lee, PhD, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology; Sanjay Maggirwar, PhD, chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine (MITM); and Rebecca Lynch, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine.

Genomics of Platelet Dysfunction and Health Disparities and COVID-19

Lee’s lab focuses on health disparities in the African American population in terms of cancer and thrombotic disorders. With the outbreak of COVID-19, researchers began seeing that in these patients who became infected with COVID-19, there are thrombotic complications that contribute to organ failure and mortality. 

The African American population, he explained, can have higher incidence of venous thromboembolism, or blood clots due to platelet aggregation, and higher incidence of overall platelet activity. 

Currently, Lee and his team, including Travis O’Brien, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and physiology, and MITM Department Chair Maggirwar, are studying platelet genomics and function in the African American population to try to figure out why platelets in that population have a greater tendency to aggregate.

“We naturally want to extend this question to thrombotic complications seen in COVID-19 patients,” he said. “We have recently applied genomic approaches to sequence the messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in platelets from African American and European American individuals to address this question. By sequencing and comparing the mRNAs, we may get clues for the higher tendency of African American platelets to aggregate, leading to thrombotic complications.”

Lee added that the grant funding will allow the researchers to study platelets in African American and European American individuals with COVID-19 and seek to investigate why the virus is associated with severe thrombotic complications.

Durability of the Antibody Response to COVID-19

The work of Lynch and her team into the durability of the antibody response to COVID-19 in the Washington, D.C., area is just getting off the ground, and is being made possible thanks to Gray’s donation.

“This funding is truly the difference between doing this research and not,” she noted. 

That will include collaborating with Chang on quantifying antibody binding and neutralization titers — or how well antibodies bind and/or neutralize virus — in people who experienced different clinical outcomes to see if there is an association between severe disease and a high or low antibody response.

In addition, she said, “if we identify anyone with a very high antibody response, we would like to map in detail where these antibodies are binding on the coronavirus spike.”

Lynch said that studying the antibody response to the virus is crucial because antibodies might provide protection from re-infection.

“Furthermore, it will be important to know if novel vaccines boost better antibody responses than infection with the virus,” she said.

Mental Health Stressors and the COVID-19 Pandemic

In her recent work, Janice Blanchard, MD, PhD, professor of emergency medicine and chief of the health policy section, is evaluating mental health stressors related to COVID-19 among emergency medicine providers. 

With her recent funding from SMHS, she plans to use the foundation of that investigative work to evaluate how residents in the District of Columbia are dealing with aspects of the pandemic such as social distancing, mask adherence, and the related stress of COVID-19 by the ward they live in.

In her work investigating emergency medicine provider stress, Blanchard said she has found that they “are extremely resilient in dealing with stress.”

“This has helped them adjust to the working conditions that have been stressful during the past few months. However, certain things, like a strong family and social support system, help them cope with stress. I hope to find out from District residents how various social determinants impact how they deal with COVID-related recommendations.”

The grant will help Blanchard set up interviews with D.C. residents and assist her in collecting rich, qualitative data “to better understand public health approaches to help residents deal with future emergencies.”

She added that donors can really help to further research and help researchers better understand and assist the communities in which they work.

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