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Fast-tracked Research Projects
Offer Quick Response to COVID-19

Sixteen Miller School research teams have received rapid response grants to undertake innovative projects that will provide critical information about the novel coronavirus

Imagine this: developing an oral rinse test to detect COVID-19 earlier, using a nitric oxide delivery device at home to avoid in-hospital ventilator treatment, or developing a way to detect COVID-19 in the tissue of transplant patients and organ donors.

These are among 16 of the 24 projects recently awarded rapid-response grants from the University of Miami’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research that is based at the Miller School of Medicine. The grants require faculty members and students to develop and execute research that will somehow broaden our understanding of COVID-19 and begin to mitigate its impacts within the next four months.

“Our idea was to take advantage of researchers’ creativity and commitment in tackling some of the most pressing problems around the COVID-19 epidemic,” said John Bixby, Ph.D., vice provost for research and professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology and neurological surgery. “We challenged them to examine the effects of the pandemic on multiple aspects of people’s lives — not just the physical ones, but the social aspects, the economic ones and the environmental.”

With just 10 days to submit proposals, faculty members across the university flooded the office with applications and more than 70 ideas were submitted. Each award was reviewed by three individuals, and the awardees were selected based on novelty, potential impact on the effort to combat COVID-19, and whether the study could be completed in short turnaround time.

“The faculty response was inspiring,” said Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., co-vice provost for research. “There was a level of innovation across multiple disciplines that demonstrates an institutional commitment to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. We look forward to the outcomes of those applications that were funded and imagine that they will lead to positive, measurable impact now and in the future.”

After the four months are over, the teams will be asked to report their progress.

Below is a list of the Miller School-based projects awarded grants:

Double-Blind, Randomized Study to Assess the Efficacy and Safety of Pulsed, Inhaled Nitric Oxide (iNO) in Subjects with Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Requiring Supplemental Oxygen

This team will evaluate the potential benefits of nitric oxide in treating COVID-19 utilizing the iNOpulse technology, which may potentially allow future patients to be treated outside of the hospital.

Principal investigator: Roger Alvarez, D.O., M.P.H., assistant professor of clinical medicine

Generating a COVID/SARS VSV-Based Vaccine

This team will develop a novel vaccine to protect against the current coronavirus pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2. Its strategy involves replacing the envelope glycoprotein (G) of vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) with the spike of COVID-19. The resulting virus will form the basis of a vaccine to generate neutralizing antibody to the SARS-CoV-2 spike that could prevent disease if exposed to the real virus.

Principal investigator: Glen Barber, Ph.D., professor and chair of cell biology

Fast-Tracking COVID-19 Treatment:Exploiting the Androgen Receptor/TMPRSS2 Axis

This study will exploit the enzyme TMPRSS2 as a potential link between androgen receptors and COVID-19 by providing preliminary data on whether certain drugs — called androgen receptor antagonists — that are effective and safe for treating prostate cancer, might also be effective in treating COVID-19.

Principal investigator: Kerry Burnstein, Ph.D., professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology

Risk and Resiliency in the Early Childhood Community in Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

Public health emergencies pose huge challenges to the behavioral health system, and consequences on the psychosocial well-being of people in at-risk communities largely go overlooked. This project will first identify community psychosocial needs and then create and disseminate a multilingual COVID-19 online toolkit and resource hub to mitigate negative mental health outcomes throughout the pandemic.

Principal investigator: Bridget Davidson, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics

Point-of-Care Oral Rinse Test for COVID-19

This project will enable the development of an oral rinse test that detects COVID-19 earlier and saves lives by directing resources and quarantine efforts to patients who need them most. Researchers will perform testing with the current prototype on a confirmed COVID-19 patient to determine the best antigen and concentration.

Principal investigator: Elizabeth Franzmann, M.D., associate professor of otolaryngology

The Use of a Novel Seroconversion Assay to Test High-Risk Medical Professionals for a History of SARS-CoV-2 Exposure

This team will take blood samples from asymptomatic health care personnel working in any patient care capacity in three high-risk medical specialties — otolaryngology, anesthesiology, and ophthalmology — and examine them for the presence of immunity. The results could help South Florida hospitals consider strategies for resource and personnel deployment.

Principal investigator: Michael Hoffer, M.D., professor of otolaryngology and neurological surgery

Effects of COVID-19’s Social Restrictions on Loneliness and Psychosocial Symptomatology

This team will gather data and insight on loneliness and other behaviors in the wake of CDC recommendations for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Results will demonstrate the effects of this public health crisis on loneliness, as well as other psychosocial symptoms. The team will also assist public health professionals in preparation for post-pandemic interventions and future global health emergencies.

Principal investigator: Viviana Horigian, M.D., associate professor of public health sciences

Globalizing an Assay(test) for Inhibitors of the Main SARS-CoV-2 Protease

More than 20 models of the viral protease (which if targeted, might stop the virus) have been openly shared on Twitter, prompting labs around the world to begin a collective search for protease inhibitors. This project will provide a cheap, accessible screening test for characterizing potential protease inhibitors and use the available crystal structures to develop effective protease inhibitors through computational techniques.

Principal investigator: Daniel Isom, Ph.D., assistant professor, molecular and cellular pharmacology

Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Virus in Tissue of Transplant Patients and Organ Donors

Researchers will investigate the ability to detect the COVID-19 virus in donor allograft tissue and frozen tissue. They will also attempt to determine whether the COVID-19 virus in the donor tissue is associated with transmission to the recipient and influences short- or long-term survival, as well as the health of the recipient.

Principal investigators: Hugo Kaneku Nagahama, M.D., assistant professor, surgery and Phillip Ruiz, M.D., professor of surgery and pathology and director of Transplantation Laboratories and immunopathology

COVID-19 in Otolaryngology: Early Identification and Healthcare Worker Protection

Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors play a key role in the treatment of COVID-19, but they are at high risk of exposure. This team will identify ENT issues in COVID-19 patients at the University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital and evaluate new approaches to case identification and health care worker protection.

Principal investigator: Xue Liu, professor and Marian and Walter Hotchkiss Endowed Chair in otolaryngology

Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone-System Inhibitors Impact on COVID-19 Infection

Individuals who have hypertension, diabetes, or underlying cardiovascular disease have higher rates of mortality from COVID-19 than the average person. Patients with these diseases have a high likelihood of being prescribed ACE inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) in order to treat their underlying ailments. This project will examine whether there is a link between drugs that are given to patients with hypertension, coronary artery disease, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease and the outcomes of COVID-19 patients.

Principal investigator: Savita Pahwa, M.D., professor, microbiology and immunology

Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on Maternal-Fetal Outcomes

This project aims to determine the rate of COVID-19 positivity among pregnant women and their newborns delivering at a tertiary care center in Miami with the highest rates of coronavirus in Florida. They also want to identify cases of maternal transmission of COVID-19, which is critical to establish treatment guidelines, while also answering questions about disease progression, perinatal transmission, and effects on the newborn.

Principal investigator: JoNell Potter, Ph.D., professor of clinical, obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services

Increasing Health Care Workforce Safety By 3D-Printing Novel N95 Masks

This team will test, evaluate, and create new reusable mask designs for use in the health care setting to limit exposure and protect medical personnel and first responders who treat coronavirus patients. The aim is to provide masks to workers within the University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital first. Finalized mask designs can be shared with other medical facilities.

Principal investigator: Carl Schulman, M.D., Ph.D., M.S.P.H., executive dean for research and professor of surgery

Deep Learning Approaches for Analysis of Chest Radiographic Images of COVID-19 Cases for Clinical Management of the Disease

This project hopes to develop a deep learning program that could classify X-ray or CT scan imaging characteristics in COVID-19 patients that could help radiologists categorize them into those patients who require hospitalization, those who will need Intensive Care Unit admission, and those at risk for death. In addition, such a deep learning network could be used to predict the patient’s response to current experimental drugs.

Principal investigator: Radka Stoyanova, Ph.D., research professor in radiation oncology

Cardiac Injury in COVID-19 Patients

This project aims to understand the relationship between cardiac injury and COVID-19 severity. The team will conduct an extensive evaluation of 50 patients with a new COVID-19 infection who require hospital admission and will test myocardial injury and inflammatory biomarkers, use cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (CMR), and offer a social determinants of health survey. Blood will be saved for future biomarker discovery and genomic evaluation.

Principal investigator: Leonardo Tamariz, M.D., professor of medicine

Defining the Interaction of SARS-CoV-2 with the Brain Endothelium

While respiratory distress dominates acute symptoms of COVID-19, ruptures in the brain’s capillary cells accompanied by bleeding within the brain have fatal consequences in patients with COVID-19. Moreover, impacts of COVID-19 on the brain depend largely on the ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to leak in through brain capillaries, the cells of which express the SARS-CoV-2 receptor (ACE2). This study is based on the hypothesis that interaction of the virus with ACE2 disrupts the normal barrier function of brain capillary cells, and induces inflammatory responses derived from these cells.

Principal Investigator: Michal Toborek, M.D., Ph.D., vice-chair for research and professor, biochemistry and molecular biology