U-M researchers launch a wide range of efforts to study and address coronavirus pandemic

Rapid universitywide effort now under way to identify and support opportunities to understand and stem the effects of the global COVID-19 health crisis

Authors | Kelly Malcom | Kara Gavin | Haley Otman

Research projects and innovations related to COVID-19 have ramped up quickly across the University of Michigan, spurred by doctors, public health experts, scientists, economists and engineers, and encouraged by research leaders.

Even though the university paused most of its massive laboratory and clinical research operations in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus, hundreds of people from many of U-M’s 19 schools and colleges have connected virtually to start new projects, or adapt their existing work, to address many aspects of the global health crisis.

Dozens of these projects are listed on the new U-M COVID-19 Research Index, at myumi.ch/umor-covid, and more will soon be added. The projects listed are in various stages of development, from planning to fully launched, and some will require additional regulatory review or funding before proceeding.

Some studies, including tests of promising drugs in patients, are already underway or being planned at Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center.

Patients seeking COVID-19 care at U-M hospitals and clinics may have access to new drugs and devices through clinical trials that will also produce much-needed data to inform care elsewhere. Analyses of data and best practices from COVID-19 care at U-M is already fueling the development of guides for teams caring for COVID-19 at hospitals anywhere.

Other projects, like modeling work by several School of Public Health faculty, are helping policymakers in Michigan and India make informed decisions on policies regarding social distancing, resource management and economic impact and recovery.

Meanwhile, U-M has committed to providing the infrastructure needed for many longer-range studies. These include efforts to identify and develop potential targets for vaccines and treatments, optimize prevention and care strategies, develop new technologies, predict the virus’s effects on individuals and communities, and measure and respond to a wide range of societal effects from the pandemic.

“These are indeed challenging times, but I am confident the generation of scientific knowledge across the University of Michigan will play a critical role as we work together to find solutions to this pandemic,” said Rebecca Cunningham, U-M vice president for research.

News about new research projects, clinical initiatives and more is being shared at news.umich.edu/coronavirus and michmed.org/COVIDnews

U-M is the nation’s largest public research university, with an annual research spending budget of more than $1.6 billion. Michigan Medicine is one of the nation’s largest academic medical centers, with 1,000 hospital beds on its main medical campus, a COVID-19 field hospital being developed, and a network of outpatient care facilities and partnerships with other health care institutions.

Some examples of the many studies under way or planned:

  1. COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Repository: A U-M-led team is leading development of a centralized database of anything that the scientific and health care community has learned about COVID-19 through this public health pandemic. The effort will gather data from coronavirus patients in order to inform front-line clinical care decisions in real time, allowing researchers to see trends in treatments, make hospital-level projections, and develop future research designs. The repository, launched by the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, builds on an existing resource called the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium. Learn more: michr.umich.edu/news/2020/3/31/michigan-researchers-pool-resources-to-combat-covid-19
  2. Searching for old drugs to treat a new disease: The U-M Center for Drug Repurposing is working to find a drug previously approved by the Food and Drug Administration—or more likely, a cocktail of several drugs—that could be used against COVID-19. The team is identifying and screening drugs from the center’s library of thousands of existing drugs, with the help of artificial intelligence methods. In addition to screening all 2,400 FDA-approved drugs, the team will extend screening to experimental compounds from a library of nearly 7,000 candidates. Learn more: michr.umich.edu/news/2020/3/24/u-m-center-for-drug-repurposing-searches-for-coronavirus-therapy
  3. Looking for an Achilles heel in the virus: A team of researchers at the U-M Life Sciences Institute is examining the pathways that the COVID-19 virus relies on to enter and infect cells, in hopes of identifying existing drugs that could be repurposed to block those paths. The team will apply its expertise in genome-scale CRISPR screening to probe for COVID-19 mutants with decreased abundance of the surface protein that the virus uses to enter cells, as well as diminished levels of another protein that mediates the entry process. By pinpointing the genetic interactions that weaken the virus’s ability to enter cells, the researchers hope to identify novel drug targets for COVID-19 treatment.
  4. Innovation to preserve protective gear: As hospitals in Michigan and around the world face current and potential shortages of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, more than a dozen U-M engineering researchers are exploring the most effective, efficient and scalable ways to disinfect and recycle N95 respirator masks. These masks—tight-fitting face shields that provide more protection than looser surgical masks, are typically considered disposable. news.engin.umich.edu/2020/04/engineers-work-to-decontaminate-n95-masks-for-front-line-medical-personnel/
  5. Harnessing health care data to improve COVID-19 care: Data-driven health care researchers at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation can do almost all their research from home. They specialize in crunching massive amounts of anonymous data from hospitals, government agencies and health insurance companies, and learning from it. Now, they are using those skills to look for patterns and clues about who is most at risk from COVID-19, what strategies work best against it, what changes to health policy might improve the national response, and more. For instance, a team is working to pool and analyze near-real-time data from Michigan hospitals in order to help identify best practices for caring for COVID-19 patients in the emergency department and in hospitals. More information: ihpi.umich.edu/covid-19-news-resources
  6. Sharing modeling to spread knowledge: A team at the School of Public Health developed a health informatics tool enabling analysis and evaluation of a range of infectious disease epidemics. They examined the COVID-19 epidemic using publicly available data from China’s version of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The tool is built on established infectious disease models and provides forecasts of the disease’s spread, and simulates the overall dynamics of the epidemic. A software package is available for public download and includes tutorials. Read about the work: sph.umich.edu/news/2020posts/data-models-for-a-model-response-to-an-outbreak.html
  7. Epidemiological modeling for COVID-19 response in Michigan: This project led by School of Public Health researchers is focused on developing transmission models for COVID-19 to assist in understanding and forecasting epidemic spread and hospital resource needs, and to examine scenarios regarding social distancing and other interventions. The researchers have been working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to provide tools to help inform planning and response efforts.
  8. Older Americans’ health and well-being during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A team from the School of Public Health and the Institute for Social Research is conducting a survey study that seeks to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic and associated control practices and policies are affecting the mental health and well-being of older adults in America, and to identify strategies that help older adults to cope. The goal is to generate knowledge that can be used to inform best practices to support health and well-being of older adults during public health crises. Study website: www.covid19copingstudy.com/
  9. Predicting the spread in India: A team of School of Public Health researchers, utilizing modeling tools they previously developed, is analyzing public health data from India to make predictions and recommendations about the continued spread of COVID-19. With a population of 1.34 billion, this data-driven modeling can assist leadership throughout India as they address this global pandemic. Learn more: news.umich.edu/coronavirus-modeling-impact-on-indias-pandemic-response/ 
  10. From flu to COVID: Since 2010, a team of School of Public Health researchers has been following hundreds of households in southeast Michigan to study influenza susceptibility, immune response and transmission. They’re now planning on exploring the COVID-19 variation across the community. This also provides a unique opportunity for researchers to study COVID-19 transmission in households, which may inform nonpharmaceutical interventions.
  11. Risk perceptions and behaviors across generations: School of Public Health researchers surveyed adults in China and the U.S. about the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, including their perceptions of getting infected, their acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine, and whether they were socially distancing. Over time, more surveys will be distributed to identify how changes in the epidemiology of disease affect these behaviors.
  12. Tracking food insecurity in the United States: School of Public Health researchers are measuring the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on food insecurity and other health outcomes among low income Americans through two surveys: one took place just as distancing measures were starting to be implemented and a follow up survey to be conducted in approximately three months. The effort is funded by the U-M Poverty Solutions initiative.
  13. Health care workforce: As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, the capacity of the health care system to treat cases is being tested in many cities as concerns mount over availability of hospital beds and needed supplies. U-M researchers are looking at how licensing regulations and educational requirements can be modified to support workforce flexibility and surge capacity.
  14. Hospital-associated respiratory virus infections: This existing School of Public Health project seeks to determine the overall impact of hospital-associated respiratory virus infections, improve case-definitions for their identification through integration of epidemiological and molecular data, and develop models to predict the most effective interventions for their prevention. This research will be applied to COVID-19, which has resulted in notable health care-associated outbreaks.
  15. Potential protection for the lungs: A team in the College of Engineering had already shown promise in animal models for treating non-COVID lung disease with an injection of drug-bearing microparticles into the blood. The injections aim to distract the most plentiful white blood cells, called neutrophils, away from areas of severe inflammation in the lungs of mice and into the liver to dispose of the particles. The approach appears to help resolve lung inflammation. The team is now working with the Office of Technology Transfer to advance the delivery system toward clinical trials, in hopes that it may prove useful in the fight against COVID-19. More information: https://techtransfer.umich.edu/stories/optimizing-micro-particle-drug-delivery-systems-for-acute-inflammatory-disease/
  16. Harnessing cardiovascular expertise: Several teams from the Frankel Cardiovascular Center are initiating basic science and clinical research endeavors to address COVID-19, thanks to the creation of a CV Impact Research Ignitor Grant competition. Projects include improving COVID-19 patient triage using measurement of a protein called suPAR, which is a marker of immune activation that’s highly expressed in lungs; exploring the connection between levels of a type of white blood cell and severity of COVID-19; and isolating human anti-COVID-19 antibodies from recovering patients to treat infected patients at risk of developing complications.
Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

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