In response to the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, researchers in The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences have swiftly pivoted their focus to projects aimed at thwarting the pandemic.
UToledo scientists are pursuing new treatments, searching for biomarkers that could help physicians better understand disease progression, exploring the body’s immune response to the virus, and investigating the intricacies of the virus itself in hopes of helping build a vaccine.
A research task force led by a pair of veteran medical scientists in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences has been established to foster collaboration and share resources and ideas across the University. More than 100 individuals — including faculty from the UToledo colleges of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Nursing, Health and Human Services, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Engineering — have joined the conversation.
“Our faculty have really stepped forward to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in a meaningful way,” said Dr. Christopher Cooper, dean of the College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “Ultimately, COVID-19 will be solved by innovative scientists who figure out how we effectively treat and prevent this.”
The UToledo Medical Research Society on April 17 approved $25,000 in funding to each of three projects in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences to jump start research aimed at confronting COVID-19.
Two of those projects are for clinical trials of drugs that might reduce the severity of symptoms.
Dr. Cheryl McCullumsmith, professor and chair of the UToledo Department of Psychiatry and the co-chair of the COVID-19 research task force, is investigating whether fluoxetine, a commonly prescribed antidepressant, might be a novel treatment able to prevent serious complications from COVID-19.
The drug, sold under the brand name Prozac, has previously been shown to block expression of a cell-signaling protein called Interleukin-6 that can trigger an overwhelming immune response called a cytokine storm. In COVID-19, cytokine storms can prove fatal.
“Fluoxetine has extraordinarily strong evidence in its action as a blocker of IL-6 and cytokine storms in both animal models of infection and in human illness such as rheumatoid arthritis and others,” McCullumsmith said. “This project aims to prevent serious outcomes such as hospitalization, respiratory failure and death in people when they are first infected with COVID-19. The goal is to use an existing drug in a new way to prevent serious complications of COVID-19 during the time it will take scientists to develop more lasting solutions, such as vaccines and antiviral treatments.”
In the second project, Dr. Elissar Andari, assistant professor of psychiatry, is moving to test whether oxytocin, a non-steroid hormone known for its role in sociality and attachment, can reduce hyper-inflammation and boost T-cell counts to help the body fight off COVID-19.
“Oxytocin is safe and has been prescribed clinically for more than 50 years,” Andari said. “We believe the mechanisms by which this drug can have a potential is through its known anti-inflammatory effects, as well as through its protective and pro-immune responses. Oxytocin also has known interaction with the ACE2 system, which is the receptor host of the virus.”
Both clinical trials are planned to begin after receiving final approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board.
The third project granted seed funding from the Medical Research Society will go to a project overseen by Dr. Matam Vijay-Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.
Vijay-Kumar is investigating flagellin — a bacterial component previously shown to eliminate viral infection — as a possible way to harness innate immune responses to fight the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. His project is also aimed at identifying biomarkers that can help clinicians diagnose the early and late stage biomarkers.
“We expect flagellin will serve as an effective therapeutic to restore impaired early anti-viral immune responses, prevent viral entry, and protect against lung and heart damage,” Vijay-Kumar said. “Additionally, we will investigate to what extent DNase I, an enzyme used to treat cystic fibrosis patients, will offer protection against virus-induced lung pathology at late stages.
The Medical Research Society was created in 2014 by a group of community donors to support biomedical research at UToledo. Seed funding from the society has helped provide early data to leverage major grants from nonprofits and federal funding agencies. To date, UToledo faculty have received more than $5.1 million in external funding for projects initially supported by the society.
“It is wonderful to see the engagement of our community leaders who support the Medical Research Society and who have funded three of the projects that are aimed at this scourge,” Cooper said. “This funding will allow our researchers to fast-track these crucial projects.”