With over 3500 cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., and new social distancing measures being enacted every day, it can seem like a bit of a madhouse out there. Fortunately for us, the science establishment have cooler heads. Here’s some of what they’ve been up to.
TREATMENST BEING WORKED ON
UC Davis: One of the first U.S. cases where community spread was the determined culprit for infection occurred at the University of California Davis Medical Center. When the patient’s condition worsened, doctors obtained a “compassionate use” permit from the FDA to try an experimental drug, remdesivir. The patient got better. There are currently several randomized trials of the drug underway in China and the U.S., including at UC Davis.
Johns Hopkins: Dr. Robert Kruse of Johns Hopkins is working on a treatment that could be implemented in weeks instead of months, and that’s because it hearkens back to days of old. Blood is taken from healthy patients who have had the disease and recovered, and injected into a sick patient. This well-established practice, called passive antibody therapy, has been used widely in many historical disease outbreaks. You don’t need to get FDA approval to do serum therapy, but there are drawbacks, one of which is that it takes one healthy human to treat a sick one, so it is a labor-intensive process.
Also at Johns Hopkins: Another potential non-vaccine treatment is decoy therapy, which involves detaching the cell receptors that a virus “reads” to target a cell. The virus then “thinks” it has infected a cell, when it has only responded to the disembodied receptors. Also, older drugs not specifically designed to deal with Covid-19 can be repurposed, using computational analysis to identify how they might be useful. This method also allows researchers to bypass costly clinical trials, since the drugs in question are already approved. This work is also being done at Johns Hopkins Department of Pathology.
RESEARCH CHALLENGES & OPPORTUNITIES
Research sharing: A pandemic is an excellent opportunity for scientists to pool their resources. On Friday, science advisors from the U.S. And 11 other countries released an open letter requesting that publishers make data freely available as it is discovered. Scientists already use pre-print services to share data, but the transparency that is proposed would change the face of research as we know it. Scientists are hoping this will be the norm for the future, and not just for time-sensitive medical treatments. WHO. PubMed.
Getting the RIGHT lab mouse: We’re about three months off from having enough of the right kind of lab mouse. To do disease research, you need lab animals. One of the most common and least expensive are mice. This presents a problem in studying Covid-19, since mice are naturally unaffected by the virus. You have to breed them so that they are susceptible. Enter the Jackson Laboratory Mouse Repository in Bar Harbor, Maine. It keeps thousands of varieties of genetically-engineered mouse sperm and embryos in cryopreservation tanks, awaiting the call of a lab that needs a certain kind of animal.
The Mouse Repository didn’t end up having the genes on hand to fill recent orders, so they sifted through the literature to discover that a Dr. Stanley Perlman, of the University of Iowa Medical School, did. Perlman sent some of the much-needed mouse sperm to the Jackson Lab, and they got a breeding program going. It takes about 12 weeks to grow a healthy adult mouse from inception.
Covid-19 climate tracking: All organisms have their ideal living conditions. This holds true for non-living things like viruses, too, or at least for the illness they can cause. In a recent paper by researchers from the University of Maryland, the Global Virus Institute, and the Institute of Human Virology, it was shown that Covid-19 spread has occurred within a fairly narrow band of climate conditions where winter temps average 41-52 degrees Fahrenheit, and humidity is between 47-49%. Extrapolating on their findings, the scientists think that they can use climate modeling to concentrate resources on where the disease will most likely get a foothold as the weather warms up. University of Maryland School of Medicine.