COVID-19 Test kit iStock

Even as the threat of a global pandemic brought an abrupt halt to all but essential activities at UVA, researchers here immediately turned their attention and expertise to helping to combat the virus.

With testing kits for the virus in critically short supply, associate professors Dr. Amy Mathers and Melinda Poulter in the department of pathology rallied colleagues across Grounds to obtain the resources to develop an in-house test that the medical center began using in mid-March.

Fellow School of Medicine professor Lawrence Lum, whose research focuses on cancer immunotherapy, put his laboratory’s capabilities to work making collection tubes for those tests while also gaining FDA approval to launch a clinical trial of a potential treatment for COVID-19 using plasma from individuals who have recovered from the virus. Used as a therapeutic treatment since the 19th century, convalescent immune plasma from illness survivors contains antibodies that help others fight off the disease. The trial at UVA was set to begin enrolling in May and will assess whether plasma will help prevent COVID-19 patients from developing more severe symptoms.

Lum is also collaborating on several COVID-19 research initiatives, including developing an accurate test for antibodies and working on a possible therapy to help calm a runaway immune system response that appears to contribute to more severe symptoms in some patients.

And there are several other efforts underway by the University’s research community to track, treat or prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • A team from the Biocomplexity Institute developed a projection model to help state officials chart a course for balancing mitigation with relaxation of the stay-at-home order.
  • NanoSTAR Institute Director Mark Kester is collaborating with Cancer Center Director Dr. Thomas Loughran and engineering associate professor Peter Kasson to repurpose an FDA-approved experimental cancer drug as a potential COVID-19 treatment, based on research in Kester’s lab showing effectiveness of the drug to limit flu infectivity.
  • Kester is also collaborating with pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Steven Zeichner to repurpose a platform currently used for HIV vaccine development that could help accelerate the pace of vaccine development for COVID-19.
  • UVA Health is part of a multicenter clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of the antiviral drug remdesivir, led by infectious disease specialist Dr. Patrick Jackson.

While it’s not surprising that UVA has joined in the global scientific community’s fight against the pandemic, what’s remarkable is both the speed at which researchers have pivoted their work to focus on COVID-19, as well as their ability to do so amid the challenging limitations imposed to control spread of the virus.

“We’ve seen many of our faculty and staff find creative ways to carry on,” says Vice President for Research Melur Ramasubramanian. “We know that our University strongly supports research as a priority, and we will all find a path forward and get through this together.”