Researchers at U seek COVID-19 answers, Part 2

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

As one of America’s leading research universities, the University of Utah is helping us understand, respond to and treat coronavirus. In this podcast, Daniel Leung, associate professor of internal medicine, and Jessica Kramer, assistant professor of bioengineering, talk about the 3i initiative and research projects now underway on campus. Recorded on Friday, March 27, 2020. Music by Taylor Hartley. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance.

Daniel Leung
Daniel Leung

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast where you get the chance to meet and hear from leaders who are helping position the U on an upward trajectory. We have remarkable things happening at the University of Utah, and the U Rising podcast is a way for you to hear about that personally with the people who are making those great changes happen. I have two guests today, Dr. Daniel Leung, who is an associate professor of Internal Medicine, and Dr. Jessica Kramer, who is an assistant professor in Bioengineering.

Daniel, maybe we'll start with you. I understand that you're leading our campus's 3i initiative, and I hope you'll tell our listeners a bit about what the 3i initiative is and how it relates particularly to COVID-19.

Daniel Leung: Yeah, so I'm an infectious disease doctor, which means that after medical school I did a residency in internal medicine and then a fellowship in infectious disease. I then proceeded to a postdoctoral training in research. Currently, one part of my research group is focused on a wet lab or laboratory-based project on the immunology of intestinal and respiratory infections. Then the second part of my research group is focused on the epidemiology and clinical management of diarrheal infections, both here in the U.S. and internationally. So, I collaborated with scientists from Bangladesh, Vietnam, Haiti, Cameroon and Mali.

Part of how I got into all of this diarrhea and infectious disease research is I spent four years in Bangladesh working on cholera immunology after I finished my clinical training and before I moved into my independent faculty position here at the University of Utah.

What brought me to Utah was the opportunity to work with a number of different scientists and physicians who are studying infectious diseases and immunology. Actually, it's been great to see all these collaborations come to fruition over the past few years.

The three “Is” stand for immunology, inflammation and infectious disease. It's an initiative that serves to create a stronger community of researchers so that we can better understand a number of diseases that are featured in the three Is and also how they interact. We focus on a wide range of diseases including infectious ones such as sepsis, malaria, influenza, autoimmune ones such as multiple sclerosis or inflammatory bowel disease, and also malignancy. So, tumor immunology and the immunotherapy. This 3i initiative is headed by myself, my co-director Ryan O'Connell in pathology as well as associate director Dr. Nicole Frank.

What we do is we try to work together to grow and support interdisciplinary collaborations to drive these fields forward. With regards to COVID-19, when this disease came on our radar, we sent an email to our listserv, which includes over 500 researchers around campus representing over 30 departments just to see who is doing research associated with COVID-19. We got an overwhelming response, both people who were interested and people who, like Dr. Kramer, are already working on COVID-19. Based on that, we organized a symposium, a virtual research symposium, to pilot work going across campus.

We also worked with the vice president of the research office to fund seed grants for our community. We've also put together a website that is updated daily with federal funding opportunities, and we've been trying to proactively engage and connect investigators with different expertise to work together on COVID-19 projects.

President Watkins: That's just spectacular. I think we often believe that solutions to big, big societal problems will come when people from different disciplines, with different expertise, can come together and bring those ideas to bear on solving problems. If you had to describe some of the news headlines related to COVID-19, how would you describe those areas where you see us really accelerating work and where you think we can have an impact?

Daniel Leung: Yeah, great question. So, based on this virtual symposium, I've been able to become familiar with some of the work around campus. I think there is a question of, will this virus go away during the summer, and how does the virus survive outside the host? Dr. Sarfati and Dr. Kramer are working on that here on the main campus.

There is also a question of do we have drugs or can we make drugs to treat COVID-19? So, we have a group on the health science campus that's looking at therapeutics at targeting the virus itself. We have another group that is working on therapeutics to target host inflammation as well as another group that's looking at how to optimally [use] those existing drugs to treat COVID-19 in children. I think those are some of the areas where the University of Utah can really bring this field forward.

I don't want to ignore also there are groups working on the modeling of how this virus, this infection, could spread as well as groups looking at, can we figure out who exactly to test given our limited testing capacity. Those are all very relevant, kind of prominent on the news, topics that are being addressed by researchers on campus.

President Watkins: Thank you so much. I think I am going to be speaking for so many people when I say we wish every success for those efforts and really important work that's happening in the 3i initiative playing a big role in that. So, Jessica, I might turn to you a little bit and ask you to tell us about your background and how it comes to be that a bioengineer has areas of work that relate to COVID-19.

Jessica Kramer
Jessica Kramer

Jessica Kramer: Yes. President Watkins, thanks for the opportunity to speak with you. My background is in the chemistry and biochemistry of proteins and sugars. I started studying these structures as an undergrad—actually at the University of Utah—in biochemistry, and then I moved on to postgrad and grad studies at UCLA, Berkeley and Stanford. There I got really interested in the science of mucus. Mucus is mainly composed of protein and sugars, and so now a major focus of what my lab works on is engineering artificial mucus systems to study how cells interact with things like viruses, but also bacteria and other things that enter the body through mucus.

President Watkins: Wow. I have to say that's an interesting angle and, of course, highly relevant in COVID-19. Tell us about your NSF grant. I understand you can have an NSF rapid grant that I'm guessing is designed to respond quickly to urgent topics. Give a little description of that please.

Jessica Kramer: I'm pleased that my proposed studies have been recommended for funding by the NSF [National Science Foundation]. The idea behind these particular funding mechanisms is to rapidly generate research that we need in response to, for example, a national emergency such as COVID-19. What my lab is trying to understand is the role that mucus plays in COVID-19 transmission. When people cough or sneeze, they expel mucus containing fluids into the air, and that is the whole reason that we are all distancing from each other right now.

These airborne mucus droplets can be suspended in the air for up to three hours, but they can also land on hard surfaces, and they can be transmitted directly onto the mucus membranes of the next victims such as in their eyes or lungs or mouth. So, these mucous droplets are carrying the virus. There are hundreds of different forms of the proteins and sugars that are in mucus, and so these different forms, they change from person-to-person. We don't all actually have the same mucus. Coronavirus, there are different forms, and some bind directly to the mucus.

My lab is going to study how these different mucus types affect the viability of the virus in the air, on surfaces, or as they migrate through the mucus before they enter the cells of the next person. Our hope is to use this information to identify which people are most likely to spread the virus at higher rates, which people are most vulnerable to the virus making it through their mucus. Also, we'd like to try to come up with ways to block coronavirus from binding to mucus in the first place.

President Watkins: Yeah, I think that that seems so important and so promising in terms of how we might ultimately prevent the spread of this disease. I think it sounds very, very important in terms of informing clinical science and practice. Clearly, in the absence of the kind of information that you're trying to help us discover, the very best thing we can do is physically distance and prevent that contact in the first place.

Jessica Kramer: Absolutely.

President Watkins: Well, I thank you both so much for taking a little bit of time away from very important work. We appreciate that you'd be willing to share with our campus and our community a little bit about this urgent research that you're pursuing. I'd say, Daniel, we're just delighted that you chose us and, Jessica, you too.

I think it must be, for someone in your fields, particularly in infectious disease, both a very exciting and interesting time when we have a situation like we have with coronavirus and COVID-19 and also a little bit terrifying, I would imagine the combination of both. This is real science happening around us every day. You're seeing the impacts of an infectious disease, and we are all seeing the importance of science that helps advance knowledge and human health. We're grateful for the work you do.

Daniel Leung: Thanks, President Watkins.

Jessica Kramer: Thank you.

President Watkins: Wouldn't it be neat if you, if Utah, played a key role in helping us better understand and treat and prevent this disease?

Daniel Leung: Yeah. Yeah. We're working towards it as a community, and I really appreciate the invitation to talk with you about it. Actually, this COVID-19 is the first time we've worked closely with the VPR [Vice President for Research] office because we're more a health science initiative. The silver lining in this is actually bringing people together that wouldn't have otherwise come together for this very relevant personal infectious disease cause.

President Watkins: Yeah, I think that's so right. I do think one of the things that has puzzled me about the way laboratory science works, and it seems that a crisis might be the opportunity to break down some of these barriers. But if you could build large-scale collaborations across the nation of labs that would work at different parts of the science continuum, it seems to me like we could move faster. I know there's always a balance between the individual investigator creativity and innovation and then a program of research that's leading toward an outcome. I applaud both parts of what you're doing to really try to say, how can we work together in a collaborative way to advance knowledge and support individual investigators' ideas?

President Watkins: So, every success ahead, I hope. Thank you both. I am going to be cheering for you in every possible way. Also, I want to thank our listeners for joining us today and taking a few minutes to hear about two very active, vibrant researchers who are representatives of a much larger community at the University of Utah working to help us better understand and ultimately know how to treat and prevent COVID-19. Thank you all. Stay well, healthy and safe. I think today we heard a good lesson about why physical distancing really matters. Thanks, and best wishes to everyone.