Superfund Research Program
The Superfund Research Program (SRP) is a network of multi-disciplinary scientists combining expertise in biomedical, environmental science and engineering, community engagement, and data management. SRP researchers provide practical, scientific solutions for pressing global public health issues. Through this multidisciplinary framework, grantees rapidly pivoted their research and expanded their collaborations to apply their knowledge to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic, SRP provided supplemental funding to Centers to expand upon the foundation established under their existing SRP grants to meet immediate needs to address the public health crisis. Another type of funding mechanism, which is part of the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnosis for Underserved Populations (RADx-Up) Initiative was made available to encourage researchers to develop and implement technologies for COVID-19 testing in underserved populations. These projects provided grantees the opportunity to leverage the SRP Center infrastructure to pivot their research to contribute to the national response to public health emergencies.
COVID and RADx-UP Supplements to SRP Centers
Impact of Airborne heavy metals on lung disease and the environment
Institution: University of Alabama Birmingham
PI: Antony, Veena B
Grant Number: 3 P42 ES027723-01
The University of Alabama SRP Center is developing biofriendly reusable facemasks for the prevention of exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus for local Birmingham communities and health care workers. This supplement stems from the Center’s current research to develop natural and recycled fiber materials to filter out metal contaminants in soil. The objective of this project is to make reusable, low-cost biodegradable masks that meet regulatory standards for N95 filters to capture and kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Using regenerated natural cellulose fiber from wood pulp, the team will develop and test the new masks before sending them out to local communities and health care workers to further optimize the design for ease of use. This project is a collaboration between the University of Alabama Birmingham and the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS
Institution: North Carolina State University
PI: Mattingly, Carolyn
Project leader: Jane A. Hoppin
Grant number: 3 P42ES031009-01S1
North Carolina State University (NCSU) SRP Center grantees are expanding the scope of their research with two North Carolina communities exposed to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to better understand the effects of COVID-19. Specifically, they will characterize COVID-19 disease, antibodies, symptoms, and severity within the population. Their work includes a two-stage blood sampling, antibody tests, and regular questionnaires on a cohort of 1,000 individuals representing a broad age range (6-86 years old). The researchers are working with community partners, local non-governmental organizations, and health departments to report back their results to the community. Given that PFAS suppress immune function, they are also leveraging their existing research to assess how individuals exposed to high levels of PFAS may differ in their response to SARS-CoV-2 exposure. The project will also look at how PFAS may alter the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines to determine if boosters may be needed more frequently in communities with high PFAS levels.
Genetics and quantum chemistry as tools for unknown metabolite identification
Institution: University of Georgia
PI: Edison, Arthur
Grant number: 3 UC2 ES 03167-03S2
Researchers from the University of Georgia, in collaboration with Erin Baker, Ph.D., from the North Carolina State University SRP Center, are examining the impact of PFAS exposure on viral susceptibility and COVID-19 disease severity. This project stems from an NIH-funded co-infection study to characterize how co-infection to other respiratory viruses affects the severity of SARS-CoV-2 in ferrets. The researchers will expand their current research by exposing ferrets to PFAS before SARS-CoV-2 infection. They will explore how PFAS exposure alters susceptibility to the virus and its outcomes by looking at changes in metabolites and PFAS. The team plans to make its data publicly available through a COVID-19 Metabolomics Slack workspace to allow other researchers to utilize it for other research questions.
Detection and models of toxicant exposure
Institution: University of California, San Diego
PI: Tukey, Robert H.
Grant number: 3 P42 ES010337-19S1
University of California, San Diego SRP Center researchers are leveraging current work identifying molecular targets for reducing an inflammatory immune response in cancer to explore new treatment options to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19. Using nanotechnology, they will develop and test a novel strategy to repurpose the anti-inflammatory drug, metformin, to reduce acute respiratory distress from COVID-19 in mice. Metformin is commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes and has been found to inhibit the NLRP3 inflammasome, which could prevent lung inflammation. The group will also evaluate the role of obesity, triclosan exposure, and old age in increasing severity of respiratory distress associated with COVID-19 in mice.
Harnessing technological innovation and community-engaged implementation science to optimize covid-19 testing for women and children in underserved communities
Institution: University of California, San Diego
PI: Tukey, Robert H.
Grant number: 3 P42ES010337-19S2
Grantees at the University of California, San Diego SRP Center received a RADx-UP award to implement a program for widespread testing in an underserved community in San Diego County, focusing on young children and pregnant women. The San Ysidro community sits on the US-Mexico border and has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with the highest incidence of cases in San Diego County and a shortage of testing. Through a partnership with San Ysidro Health, the largest healthcare system in the community, families will be engaged in COVID-19 testing during prenatal and immunization visits. The researchers are working closely with community members to identify and address barriers to testing uptake, and to implement and evaluate relevant strategies to accelerate delivery of COVID-19 testing. Through initial meetings with community members the researchers learned that the target population is primarily Hispanic with a strong preference for the use of Spanish language materials and that there is a need for more testing sites throughout the community. These findings will inform the team's outreach strategies.
- UCSD Co-Create Project website
- UCSD Co-Create Project Twitter page
- UCSD Co-Create Project Instagram page
Mechanisms of arsenic exposure on the severity/virality of SARS-CoV-2 infection
Institution: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
PI: Fry, Rebecca
Grant Number: 3 P42ES031007-01S2
University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill SRP Center researchers are expanding their research to explore the underlying mechanism by which exposure to arsenic alters the severity of SARS-CoV-2 infection and severity of COVID-19. The researchers will characterize interactions between arsenic exposure and SARS-CoV-2 infection utilizing novel in vivo and in vitro laboratory models previously researched by the group to study arsenic exposure. Specifically, in their in vitro study they will use human nasal epithelial cells from female and male donors to test if exposure to arsenic enhances SARS-CoV-2 infection. The in vivo study will examine immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and mortality in a novel humanized mouse model, in which the metabolism of arsenic resembles that in humans, exposed to arsenic in drinking water. The researchers will also examine the role of sex and genetic background in disease outcome.
A Geographical Information System (GIS)-based study on arsenic exposure, social stressors, and COVID-19 disease risk in North Carolina
Institution: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
PI: Fry, Rebecca
Grant Number: 3 P42ES031007-01S1
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill SRP Center Data Analysis and Management Core (DMAC) is developing a GIS approach to evaluate the association between exposure to arsenic, social stressors, and COVID-19 disease in North Carolina. This supplement builds on the activities of the DMAC to address the fundamental knowledge gap in understanding environmental contributions to the COVID-19 burden. Using ArcGIS, the group is integrating data on arsenic in drinking water, COVID-19 cases, and social stressors to identify particularly vulnerable areas and opportunities for prevention approaches. As a major output of this project, the researchers developed the NC-ENVIRO-SCAN web portal, an open-access public health tool to disseminate findings to community members and stakeholders.
Other COVID-19 Research and Activities by SRP Grantees
PI: Jonathan Levy
Boston University SRP Center researchers created a data visualization and mapping tool for daily COVID-19 cases across Massachusetts. The tool, which also includes information on environmental stressors, can identify areas of need and help allocate resources appropriately during the COVID-19 crisis.
PI: Beizhan Yan
Columbia University SRP Center researchers Beizhan Yan, Ph.D., and Steve Chillrud, Ph.D., tested a simple method to disinfect and reuse disposable masks. They also compared the effectiveness of medical-grade masks with homemade ones and investigated the feasibility of improving masks with homemade nose clips.
- Developing Home-disinfection and Filtration Efficiency Improvement Methods for N95 Respirators and Surgical Facial Masks: Stretching Supplies and Better Protection During the Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic
Louisiana State University
PI: Stephania Cormier
Louisiana State University (LSU) SRP Center Director Stephania Cormier, Ph.D., and colleagues opened the LSU River Road Testing Lab, a new COVID-19 test lab to help ease the burden on Louisiana hospitals. The testing lab currently serves 18 medical facilities. This is partly funded by the Baton Rouge Health District.
Cormier and colleagues developed a saliva-based test to help track COVID-19 in K-12 school children and teachers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This is part of a pilot program to add to the growing data from LSU researchers and other scientists about how saliva-based testing can be used for COVID-19 surveillance in schools.
- LSU Coronavirus Testing Lab Supports 18 Louisiana Medical Facilities
- LSU Researchers Develop Saliva-based Test to Make COVID-19 Easier to Track
Cormier received a RADxUP award funded through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to increase uptake of SARS-CoV-2 testing in underserved Black communities in the Southern United States. The group used a community-based research approach to determine differences in testing rates across five urban underserved Black Communities. They also conducted saliva testing at schools, community centers, churches, and medical clinics in North Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to determine where community members prefer to be tested. Results from this project will inform future strategies to reduce health disparities and increase access to equitable deployment of testing and vaccines in underserved communities.
- Study Tackles Barriers to COVID-19 Testing in Black Communities
- The Louisiana Clinical and Translational Science
PI: Emma Fernandez-Repollet
Northeastern University SRP grantees at the Center for Collaborative Research in Health Disparities at University of Puerto Rico are examining the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in pregnancy related experiences and outcomes, including mental health impacts. The study will assess how the isolation and physical distancing measures related to the coronavirus pandemic have affected pregnant women and mother of children 12 months or younger. They will also identify risk and protective factors to COVID-19. Participants will be recruited from the Puerto Rico Test-site for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT). Using their findings, the researchers hope to lead to the development of interventions for local community health centers and the creation of evidence-based protocols aimed at the Puerto Rican population. This project is partly funded by SRP and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
PI: Phil Brown; Carmen Milagros Velez Vega
The Community Engagement Core team at the Northeastern University Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) SRP Center runs a social media campaign, PROTECT Responde, to share information and resources about environmental contaminants and their health impacts. The Protect Responde campaign created and shared educational videos focused on COVID-19 vaccines for children 5-11 and COVID-19 and pregnancy.
PI: Emily Zimmerman
A research team at the PROTECT SRP Center, led by Emily Zimmerman, Ph.D., has begun enrollment in the Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative study. The purpose of the study is to learn why some people have prolonged symptoms or develop new or returning symptoms related to COVID-19. By including Puerto Ricans in national health studies like RECOVER, PROTECT’s cohort ensures more representative research populations and findings.
Oregon State University
PI: Katrina Waters
Oregon State SRP Center Deputy Director Katrina Waters, Ph.D., is coordinating the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) response to COVID-19. These projects are funded by the United States Department of Energy.
At the request of King County, Washington, SRP researchers at PNNL assisted with the set up of an incident response and control center and established a COVID-19 testing laboratory to identify patients in most need of urgent care.
Waters is leading a multi-laboratory effort focused on SARS-CoV-2 fate and transport to understand how the virus travels in the environment and how factors such as humidity and temperature affect its transmission.
- Richland Scientists Respond to COVID-19 Global Pandemic with Research and Technology
- PNNL Fights COVID-19 on an Array of Research Fronts
PI: Justin Teeguarden
Justin Teeguarden, Ph.D., and collaborators are expanding the focus of the Biomedical resilience and Readiness in Adverse Operating Environments (BRAVE) program to monitor the health and performance of first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers look at molecular patterns to determine vulnerability for disease.
Texas A&M University
PI: Ivan Rusyn
The Texas A&M University (TAMU) SRP Center Community Engagement Core (CEC) presented a series of community webinars on COVID-19 and vaccinations. Speakers, including TAMU SRP Center Director Ivan Rusyn, Ph.D., and TAMU SRP-funded researchers Weihsueh Chiu, Ph.D., and Garett Sansom, Ph.D., explained how vaccines work and discussed the inequities the pandemic has revealed in local communities. The webinars were attended by approximately 200 high school students and local community members.
The CEC partnered with community leaders and organizations in the Houston area, including the Salvation Army, to bring this presentation to local communities and answer people’s questions to address disinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. They held events at the Salvation Army, local churches, and community parks to address misconceptions about COVID-19 and prevent vaccine hesitancy. Depending on the community, language translators were on hand. In partnership with the Texas A&M College of Medicine, vaccinations were also offered at these events.
- Demystifying COVID-19 & Vaccinations
- Texas A&M doctors, local health officials bringing presentation to fight vaccine hesitancy to the Brazos Valley
- Texas A&M Superfund Research Center partners with Castle Heights neighborhood to vaccinate residents
TAMU, NC State, NIEHS Collaboration
Texas A&M University
Weihsueh Chiu and Ivan Rusyn
North Carolina State University
Skylar Marvel, Fred Wright, Yihui Zhou, and Kuncheng Song and David Reif
Alison Motsinger-Reif, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Biostatistics and Computational Branch, collaborated with researchers from the Texas A&M SRP, NC State SRP to develop the COVID-19 Pandemic Vulnerability Index (PVI). The PVI dashboard is an innovative tool to visualize and communicate COVID-19 data and identify areas vulnerable to the disease.
University of Arizona
PI: Stephanie Russo Carroll
Researchers led by University of Arizona SRP Center Community Engagement Core leaders Stephanie Russo Carroll, Ph.D., and Karletta Chief, Ph.D., are investigating the link between COVID-19 and diabetes and exposure to inorganic drinking water contaminants, such as arsenic, on the Navajo Nation. The goal of this project, which is supported by an NIEHS Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant, is to identify individual and environmental risk factors for COVID-19 and death among Navajo Nation residents.
- Investigating linkages between arsenic exposure, diabetes, and COVID-19 infections and risks on the Navajo Nation
University of California, Berkley
PI: Daniel Nomura
UC Berkley SRP Center grantee Daniel Nomura, Ph.D., and colleagues are collaborating with the pharmaceutical company Novartis, to discover new antiviral therapeutics for COVID-19. The team is expanding their work to develop enzyme inhibitors that bind to and block an essential enzyme of SARS-CoV-2, known as Mpro, which is critical for replication. The Nomura lab has spent the past 3 years collaborating with Novartis on drug discovery.
- An Expert on “Undruggable” Targets Tackles the Coronavirus
- Novartis and Berkeley Researchers Team up to Tackle the Industry’s Toughest Drug Targets
PI: Jill Banfield
UC Berkeley SRP Center grantee Jill Banfield, Ph.D., was awarded an Innovative Genomics Institute Rapid Response Research Fund grant to study early detection of COVID-19 reemergence in municipal wastewater. The team is developing methods to accurately measure viral strains of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, to elucidate which viral strains are circulating in communities and if new strains are being introduced.
PI: Alan Hubbard
UC Berkley SRP Center researcher Alan Hubbard, Ph.D., and collaborators are using computer modeling and statistical analysis to facilitate COVID-19 outbreak projections. Through this project, the researcher will use statistical models to uncover the factors that most affect SARS-CoV-2 transmission. The researchers will also develop the Data and Scenario Analysis (DASA) platform, an analytical public health tool for policymakers and epidemiological research. This work is made possible by a National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID grant.
- RAPID: COVID-19 Comparative Modeling and Analyses of Outbreaks Using Mechanistic and Ensemble Machine Learning and the Development of a Platform for Projection and Management
University of California, San Diego
PI: Ilya Zaslavsky
UC San Diego SRP Center grantee Ilya Zaslavsky, Ph.D., and collaborators are integrating biomedical and environmental datasets to learn more about the characteristics and spread of COVID-19. The researchers are building a knowledge graph to show how different strains of SARS-CoV-2 spread through communities. With additional support from an NSF RAPID award, the team is developing an online dashboard that will help users access and query the data. They will integrate tools that use public health, pathogen, and environmental datasets and models.
The team also launched an online community data sharing effort, through which people can suggest publicly accessible datasets to include in the graph, contribute applications to enhance graph content, and add knowledge graph analysis and query tools.
- RAPID: COVID-19-Net: Integrating Health, Pathogen and Environmental Data into a Knowledge Graph for Case Tracking, Analysis, and Forecasting
PI: Rohit Loomba
In collaboration with the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, UC San Diego SRP researcher Rohit Loomba, Ph.D., initiated a multicenter clinical trial to examine effectiveness of the drug Ramipril against COVID-19. Rampiril works by blocking proteins that drive inflammation and tissue injury in the lung, the primary site of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
University of Iowa
PI: Peter Thorne
Peter Thorne, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa SRP Center received funding from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs to evaluate the performance of air filtering materials for use in a 3D printed respirator. The objective of this project is to produce a reusable respirator with performance approaching that of the N95 mask.
University of Kentucky
PI: Dibakar Bhattacharyya
University of Kentucky SRP Center project lead Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D., is developing an antiviral membrane mask to capture and deactivate Sars-CoV-2 proteins. The project builds off the team’s earlier work to develop membranes to remove hazardous chemicals from the environment. This study is partly funded by NSF.
- Antiviral Mask to Kill Coronavirus on Contact in Development by Researchers
- Pd/Fe Nanoparticle Integrated PMAA-PVDF Membranes for Chloro-organic Remediation From Synthetic and Site Groundwater
PI: James Keck
James Keck, Lindell Ormsbee, and Anna Hoover, of the University of Kentucky SRP Center, received a RADx-rad award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to develop a new technology to identify SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. Screening of wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 viral biomarkers offers a viable alternative to track community infection in contrast to more expensive and labor- intensive clinical testing, especially in rural areas. The team developed, optimized, and validated a new assay for RNA detection to create a sensitive, robust, and field-friendly platform for testing wastewater for SARS- CoV-2 RNA. To validate their technology, Keck and team recruited and trained wastewater treatment plant operators, community members, and teachers in Appalachian Kentucky to test wastewater in their local communities. The researchers have been steadily working with six nursing homes in the area, setting up automated testing measures that, when COVID-19 is detected, are able to alert the adjacent facilities.
- UK Researchers Advancing Wastewater Testing to Track COVID-19
- Wastewater Assessment for Coronavirus in Kentucky: Implementing Enhanced Surveillance Technology
- UK's Disease Detectives Use Wastewater Testing to Monitor COVID Infection Trends
University of Louisville
PI: Aruni Bhatnagar
Aruni Bhatnagar, Ph.D., of the University of Louisville SRP Center, received funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track COVID-19 cases by testing wastewater. In partnership with the Louisville/Jefferson County Metropolitan City District and local community groups, the researchers have been collecting wastewater samples and recruiting participants for SARS-CoV-2 infection and antibodies testing. Through this project, they hope to develop a tool that can estimate the number of COVID-19 cases in different neighborhoods around the county. After analysis, they will send the results to the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System to help inform efforts across the U.S.
University of Louisville SRP researchers, including Bhatnagar, leveraged the GreenHeart Study infrastructure to initiate the Co-Immunity Study, which focuses on healthcare workers. The Co-Immunity Study, which is partly funded by NIEHS, will continue to analyze previously collected data and ensure that connections built with GreenHeart study participants and stakeholders are maintained. The Co-Immunity Project is a unique series of studies to estimate COVID-19 cases among healthcare workers and the broader Louisville community, and to track movement of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater and surface water.
- The Co-Immunity Project
- COVID-19 rates continue to increase, with highest rates among 18-34-year-olds
University of New Mexico
PI: Melissa Gonzales
Mallery Quetawki, Artist in Residence at the University of New Mexico (UNM) SRP Center and a member of Zuni Pueblo, incorporates tribal symbolism in her paintings to show the human body’s natural defense mechanisms and explain how mRNA, antibodies, and vaccines work. Her art has aided in spreading awareness of COVID-19 among Native American communities.
- Artist uses tribal symbolism, traditions to communicate science
- Covid Calls Podcast episode featuring Quetawki
University of New Mexico and University of Arizona
Researchers from the University of New Mexico and University of Arizona SRP Centers joined the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group, a network of universities, nonprofits, and federal and Navajo Nation government officials. The purpose of this group is to identify and design interventions which will increase access to safe drinking water for tribal homes and reduce community spread of COVID-19. The researchers are installing clean water stations in Navajo National communities without running water who have been affected by COVID-19. They are also mapping water quality data and surveying locals about infrastructure use and other variables predictive of COVID-19 risk.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
PI: Kathleen Gray
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SRP Center grantees contributed to a new Digital Interactive Notebook titled “Arsenic exposure: Exploring the intersection of environmental health and susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2.” This resource is intended for K-12 educators and is regularly updated as research unfolds on this subject. The digital notebook focuses on community arsenic exposure and its interaction with SARS-CoV-2 susceptibility and subsequent health outcomes.
University of Rhode Island
PI: Angela Slitt
A team at the University of Rhode Island SRP, led by project leader Angela Slitt, Ph.D., developed a test to detect SARS-CoV-2 virus in saliva. This new test was adapted from Slitt’s SRP-funded project, which uses branched DNA assay technology to detect metabolic changes resulting from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances exposure.
University of Washington
PI: Clement Furlong
Clement Furlong, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Washington SRP Center, and colleagues received an NIH REACH grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to develop a diagnostic technology for rapid screening of COVID-19. The new diagnostic technique is based on a carbon nanotube sensor. Furlong and collaborators hope to create a simple, accurate, rapid, low-cost alternative for COVID-19 testing.
COVID-19 Publications by SRP Grantees
PIs: Anna M. Adachi-Mejia
Dartmouth College SRP Center Community Engagement Core researchers and collaborators have been working with secondary schools in Maine and New Hampshire on a citizen science program that examines arsenic contamination of well water, a pressing public health issue in both states. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close, the team pivoted, helping teachers and students transition to online training while also exploring safe community outreach opportunities. As the authors noted, most of the COVID-19 adaptations and interventions improved the project and will continue after the pandemic is over.
- Adaptations to a Secondary School-Based Citizen Science Project to Engage Students in Monitoring Well Water for Arsenic during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Louisiana State University
PI: Stephania Corimer
Following discussions at the 2021 Pacific Basin Consortium for Environment and Health meeting, Louisiana State University SRP Center Director Stephania Cormier and collaborators reviewed information on the environmental impacts on infectious diseases, including COVID-19. At the meeting, researchers presented data on the susceptibility and severity of pollution on respiratory health, noting the direct impact this has on individuals with COVID-19. Notably, the article suggests that exposure to particulate matter pollution in adolescents increases morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19. The authors recommend antioxidant supplements to improve immune response and reduce the severity of viral infections as a way of combatting respiratory viruses.
North Carolina State University, Texas A&M University
PIs: David Reif, Weihsueh Chiu
Researchers at the North Carolina State University SRP and Texas A&M University SRP collaborated with NIEHS to develop the COVID-19 Pandemic Vulnerability Index (PVI). The PVI integrates county-level baseline data on relevant community vulnerabilities with infection rates and interventions to identify areas especially vulnerable to the disease. In a recent publication, the team described the data streams and statistical modeling efforts used to calculate the PVI and outlined the development of an interactive web Dashboard. According to the authors, this dashboard could help decision-makers make informed decisions to combat the pandemic from the local to the national level on multiple time scales.
- The COVID-19 Pandemic Vulnerability Index (PVI) Dashboard: Monitoring County-Level Vulnerability Using Visualization, Statistical Modeling, and Machine Learning
Texas A&M University
PIs: Ivan Rusyn
In vitro screening tools can help scientists decide which COVID-19 treatments to prioritize in clinical trials. To that end, Texas A&M SRP Center researchers and collaborators demonstrated how a device containing heart cells derived from human stem cells can rapidly screen potential COVID-19 therapies for heart safety. They treated the tool, nicknamed “organ-on-a-chip,” with two drugs that had been used on COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic, but that were later revoked because of safety concerns. Their findings reflected results from clinical studies on those drugs, indicating the tool’s potential in screening the safety of other potential therapies.
- Heart Muscle Microphysiological System for Cardiac Liability Prediction of Repurposed COVID-19 Therapeutics
University of Alabama at Birmingham
PI: Jessy Deshane
University of Alabama at Birmingham project leader Jessy Deshane, Ph.D., co-authored a review on sphingolipids’ involvement in the development of lung injury in COVID-19 patients. Sphingolipids are a class of lipids that regulate cell survival and inflammatory responses. The authors discuss the role of sphingolipid metabolism in the development of lung damage and the potential of targeting this mechanism as a therapeutic option for COVID-19 and lung disease.
- Sphingolipids in Lung Pathology in the Coronavirus Disease Era: A Review of Sphingolipid Involvement in the Pathogenesis of Lung Damage
Researchers University of Alabama at Birmingham developed a model to identify how T cells may produce immune responses to SARS-CoV-2. T cells, which are part of the immune system, have been associated with protection against coronaviruses, including the novel SARS-CoV-2. The team developed a three-dimensional model using lung tissue from individuals with a COVID-19 positive diagnosis and from those with no history of infection. According to the authors, this model may be relevant for evaluating immune responses to new and previously encountered viruses.
- Local SARS-CoV-2 peptide-specific Immune Responses in Convalescent and Uninfected Human Lung Tissue Models
PI: Vinoy Thomas
Vinoy Thomas, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham SRP Center, co-authored a review highlighting the possible benefits of two-dimensional (2D) materials as a platform for SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis. 2D materials, such as graphene, provide excellent electrical, optical, mechanical, and chemical properties for device performance. According to the authors, these properties make 2D materials a promising platform for high sensitivity, specificity, and selectivity for rapidly detecting different viruses and microbes.
- 2D materials as a diagnostic platform for the detection and sensing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: a bird's-eye view
University of Alabama SRP researcher, Vinoy Thomas, and collaborators reviewed the techniques and methods currently being used to design and develop antiviral coatings used to capture and destroy the strains of different viruses. The authors describe various strategies involved in the development of antiviral coatings, like incorporating metal ions and using functional nanoparticles, and assess how these could be adapted for use against SARS-CoV-2. According to the authors, some of the membranes described in this study could exert an inhibitive effect on COVID-19 and be used to fabricate antiviral products such as personal protective equipment and medical instruments.
- Science-Based Strategies of Antiviral Coatings with Viricidal Properties for the COVID-19 Like Pandemics
University of California, Berkely
PI: Alan Hubbard
Researchers with the UC Berkeley SRP Center used sophisticated machine learning to explore the role of social, physical, and environmental factors on COVID-19 transmission and death rates early in the pandemic. Their findings suggest that racial composition of U.S. counties and intensity of public transportation were the biggest risks factors for the initial rapid growth and subsequent high incidence of COVID-19 cases. Those factors also help explain variations in death rates across counties. According to the authors, vaccine distribution and other disease mitigation measures could have the greatest impact if they prioritize communities at highest risk for transmission.
University of California, Davis
PI: Bruce Hammock
A team at the UC Davis SRP Center developed and validated a biological assay to simultaneously and specifically detect antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 and six other common human coronavirus strains. The assay was validated using animal models and human plasma samples from COVID-19 patients. Specifics about the development of the assay, and dynamics of immune responses observed in COVID-19 patients were described in a recent publication. According to the authors, the assay could be used to complement current detection platforms for SARS-CoV-2 infection, and provide information regarding the impact of other coronavirus strains on COVID-19.
UC Davis SRP Center researchers led by Bruce Hammock, Ph.D., discovered a drug that may control the body’s inflammatory response to COVID-19 and could help patients recover. This study is partly funded by SRP, NIEHS, and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
In a recent review, researchers at the UC Davis SRP Center described the potential role of eicosanoids, signaling molecules that regulate the body’s inflammatory response, in alleviating COVID-19 symptoms. According to the authors, SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an eicosanoid storm of both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory mediators and a better understanding of this mechanism could provide novel insights for therapeutic approaches to combat COVID-19. Additionally, the authors uncovered the role of the enzyme epoxide hydrolase (sEH) in regulating anti-inflammatory and antiviral response and suggest the potential application of sEH inhibitors to alleviate COVID-19 symptoms should be further explored.
UC Davis SRP Center Director Bruce Hammock, Ph.D., and collaborators linked a blood plasma biomarker to severe respiratory distress syndrome, a major cause of death in COVID-19 patients. The researchers found increases in certain fatty acids in the blood of hospitalized COVID-19 patients which are associated with acute adult respiratory symptoms in rodents. According to the authors, future work should investigate the pathways involved in the biosynthesis and degradation of these compounds to determine their significance in COVID-19 disease.
- Plasma Linoleate Diols Are Potential Biomarkers for Severe COVID-19 Infections
- Biomarker suggests severity of COVID-19 respiratory distress
Researchers from the UC Davis SRP Center investigated the role of fatty acid metabolites on immune system impairment. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are metabolized to compounds called DiHOMEs, have been associated with acute respiratory distress in severe COVID-19 patients. Using mice, the researchers found that DiHOMEs are a key driver of immune system impairment and increased mortality, but inhibiting DiHOME formation restored immune function. According to the researchers, blocking DiHOME generation may be a therapeutic method of improving immune responses in several health conditions, including burns and acute respiratory distress.
- sEH-derived metabolites of linoleic acid drive pathologic inflammation while impairing key innate immune cell function in burn injury
PI: Tingrui Pan
UC Davis SRP Center researchers led by Tingrui Pan, Ph.D., designed a low-cost clinically viable ventilator that can be used during pandemic and mass-casualty events. The ventilator, called AmbuBox, is easy to assemble and relies on readily available technologies. This design addresses the global need for inexpensive ventilators to treat acute respiratory distress syndrome associated with COVID-19. The team will further investigate a mass-production prototype through clinical testing. Given the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers described a full list of components and detailed fabrication and assembly steps in an open-access publication.
University of California, San Diego
PI: Michael Karin
Led by project leader Michael Karin, Ph.D., scientists at the UC San Diego SRP Center explored the mechanisms by which the anti-diabetic drug metformin can reduce the severity of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a common condition in serious cases of COVID-19. The researchers observed that metformin can prevent acute inflammatory responses in mice by interfering with the NLP3 inflammasome, a protein complex that triggers the release of other proinflammatory proteins and initiates cell death. According to the authors, these results show that metformin could be used to treat inflammatory conditions, including acute respiratory distress syndrome.
- Metformin inhibition of mitochondrial ATP and DNA synthesis abrogates NLRP3 inflammasome activation and pulmonary inflammation
PI: Rohit Loomba
UC San Diego SRP grantee Rohit Loomba collaborated in a publication to highlight the role of the renin-angiotensin system (RAS) pathway in treating severe cases COVID-19 cases. The RAS pathway plays a central role in regulating blood pressure, homeostasis, cell growth, and metabolism. The authors explained key features of SARS-CoV-2 infection and why certain patients, like those with age-associated co-morbidities, have greater morbidity and mortality. They also discuss the benefits of drugs that target the RAS pathway for treating age-associated conditions that enhance susceptibility for severe COVID-19.
- Targeting the Renin−angiotensin Signaling Pathway in COVID-19: Unanswered Questions, Opportunities, and Challenges
UC San Diego SRP researcher, Rohit Loomba, and collaborators recently described the current status of clinical research in hepatology, a branch of medicine that studies liver diseases, as well as challenges during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. The team also delineated innovative strategies researchers and stakeholders are adopting to maintain clinical research during the pandemic, such as remote biospecimen collection and radiology services, screening patients using mobile phones, and recruiting study participants online. According to the authors, the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-term impact on clinical research, but investigators are embracing it as a disruptive innovation to design more efficient studies that will accelerate the pace of science.
- Clinical Research in Hepatology in the COVID-19 Pandemic and Post-pandemic Era: Challenges and the Need for Innovation
UC San Diego researcher Rohit Loomba, Ph.D., collaborated with other colleagues at UC San Diego to examine the efficacy of ramipril, a drug used to treat hypertension, in preventing severe disease and mortality from SARS-CoV-2 infection. The researchers designed a prospective study to evaluate the effects of treatment with daily ramipril compared to placebo for 14 days. Results from this partially SRP-funded study could provide valuable information regarding the efficacy of ramipril in reducing morbidity and mortality in COVID-19 patients.
- RAMIC: Design of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to evaluate the efficacy of ramipril in patients with COVID-19
PI: Keith Pezzoli
The University of California, San Diego SRP Center engaged members of Latino, Black, immigrant, and refugee communities in California to promote equitable access to COVID-19 testing and vaccination. The researchers established Community Advisory Boards — consisting of community organizers, community health workers, clinic providers, and public health researchers — tasked with identifying conditions needed to eliminate COVID-19 disparities along with the necessary actions to create those conditions. The groups identified accessible and available services, culturally competent programming, investment in trusted community members, and social safety nets as necessary to equitably address the COVID-19 pandemic. The study served as a rich opportunity to engage diverse groups in COVID-19 planning, say the researchers.
- Co-creating a Theory of Change to advance COVID-19 testing and vaccine uptake in underserved communities
PI: Robert H. Tukey
UC San Diego researchers simultaneously organized two research projects to promote equity in COVID-19 testing and vaccination and authored a subsequent article detailing the types and costs of resources utilized to enact meaningful community engagement. These projects utilized Community Advisory Boards comprised of community organizers, health providers and administrators, public health researchers, and Spanish-speaking community health workers to discuss conditions surrounding community priorities and outreach. These discussions informed how the research team must utilize their time to meaningfully inform community engagement protocols.
- Engaging Underserved Communities in COVID-19 Health Equity Implementation Research: An Analysis of Community Engagement Resource Needs and Costs
University of Iowa
PI: Keri C. Hornbuckle
Researchers from the University of Iowa SRP Center authored a review examining mesenchymal stromal cell (MSC) therapy, the challenges posed when treating patients living with obesity, and the lessons that cancer immunotherapy may be able to offer. MSC therapy, aimed at repairing degraded tissue, has been proposed as a possible route to treat several inflammatory conditions including COVID-19 acute respiratory distress syndrome. However, current research suggests that obesity may alter how MSCs and immune cells interact. The authors propose possible strategies to enhance the effectiveness of MSC therapy for a broad range of patients.
University of Kentucky
PI: Anna Hoover
University of Kentucky SRP researchers, in collaboration with Wendy Heiger-Bernays from the Boston University SRP Center, applied their knowledge of stakeholder input uncertainty to help guide schools in implementing re-opening strategies. In a recent publication, the team leveraged their research on communities exposed to hazardous waste to foster informed decisions and determine the control measures most appropriate for school systems. The authors discuss the role of ventilation and risk communication, among other measures to reduce SARS-CoV2 exposure risk in schools.
- Balancing Incomplete COVID-19 Evidence and Local Priorities: Risk Communication and Stakeholder Engagement Strategies for School Re-opening
PI: Dibakar Bhattacharyya
Researchers with the University of Kentucky SRP Center confirmed that hollow artificial membranes—essentially tiny, porous tubes—can filter from air small particles that contain infectious virus, such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. According to the authors, the results suggest that these commercially available membranes, which are common in water purification technology, could be a convenient way to minimize transmission of various respiratory illnesses.
- Demonstration of Hollow Fiber Membrane-Based Enclosed Space Air Remediation for Capture of an Aerosolized Synthetic SARS-CoV-2 Mimic and Pseudovirus Particles
University of Kentucky SRP Center researchers developed a membrane filter combined with antiviral enzymes designed to remove SARS-CoV-2 particles in the air and reduce virus transmission. Their membrane showed higher than 98.9% filtration efficiency and surpassed the protection offered by commercial N95 masks while maintaining breathability at a low material cost. According to the authors, these membranes may be a promising system of advancement towards the new generation of respiratory face masks and enclosed-environment air filters.
- Aerosol capture and coronavirus spike protein deactivation by enzyme functionalized antiviral membranes
PI: Kelly G. Pennell
A team of University of Kentucky SRP Center researchers studied virus inactivation technologies, offering suggestions on what may help combat COVID-19 or other pandemics in the future. SARS-CoV-2 relies on the binding of virus proteins with human enzymes, though if the interaction is disrupted, it would likely inhibit infections as well. The study examines magnetic nanoparticle dispersions exposed to an alternating magnetic field as a possible technique for inactivating the virus. According to the authors, their strategy resulted in significant binding inactivation, showing its potential for effectively inactivating viruses.
- Enhanced Inactivation of Pseudoparticles Containing SARS-CoV-2 S Protein Using Magnetic Nanoparticles and an Alternating Magnetic Field
University of Rhode Island
PI: Philippe Grandjean
In a recent SRP-funded publication, researchers observed that exposure to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), specifically perfluorobutanoic acid, was associated with an increased risk for more severe illness suffered by people who are infected with COVID-19. The team, led by Philippe Grandjean, analyzed plasma samples from Danish individuals to assess if background exposures to PFAS are associated with the clinical course of infection of COVID-19. According to the authors, PFAS have toxic effects on the immune system, and the role of PFAS exposure in populations with elevated concentrations needs to be further evaluated.
University of Rhode Island project leader Philippe Grandjean and collaborators found a potential link between contaminants that interfere with the body’s hormones, known as endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs), and COVID-19. The team used statistical methos and publicly available datasets to identify proteins overlapping between the EDCs and diseases associated with severe COVID-19 illness. They found several proteins that may be affected by EDCs and that may also be involved in disease severity. According to the authors, these computational approaches may be useful for increasing the understanding of mechanisms linking hazardous substances and human disease.
NIEHS Superfund Research Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Louisiana State University, and others
SRP Director, Bill Suk, Ph.D., and SRP Health Specialist, Brittany Trottier, collaborated with several SRP grantees in a recent commentary that describes how interactions between environmental exposures and COVID-19 affects children’s health. The authors identified knowledge gaps in the epidemiological link between air pollution and COVID-19 in children, who seem to be less affected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus than adults however are more susceptible to air pollution. The team also developed a transdisciplinary research strategy to address these gaps. According to the researchers, lessons learned about COVID-19 in children will help us to understand and reduce disease severity in adults.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
PI: Rebecca Fry
In a recent review, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SRP Center identified toxic compounds — including air pollutants, metals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and endocrine disrupting chemicals — that may increase susceptibility to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the risk of severe COVID-19. The authors explained that while specific mechanisms vary by contaminant, they generally alter host antiviral response by changing regulation of viral entry and recognition in cells, inflammation, and immune system memory pathways.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
PI: Bogdan Fedeles
MIT SRP Center researchers reviewed the evidence for and consequences of DNA and RNA tautomerism, which occurs when nucleobases — the building blocks of DNA and RNA that encode genetic information— adopt distinct structures that differ from one another by the position of their protons. Tautomerism plays a role in the mechanism by which antiviral drugs can induce lethal mutations in the replicating virus, which is the main mechanism of action behind molnupiravir, a drug currently under development to treat COVID-19.