COVID-19 forced an abrupt shift in focus for scientists and researchers at the University of Minnesota. While most research laboratories were shuttered by the pandemic, the U launched a series of COVID-19 projects to tackle pressing questions about diagnostics to detect the pandemic virus and medicines that might treat the disease. A hub for the U’s COVID-19 work is the Microbiology Research Facility, which houses the U’s contribution to Minnesota’s “moonshot” effort to expand COVID-19 testing through a partnership between the U, Mayo Clinic and the Minnesota Department of Health. Dr. Timothy Schacker, vice dean for research at the U’s medical school and an infectious disease specialist, shares how the U launched its testing program, contributed to drug studies and even created a low-cost ventilator amid worries that hospitals wouldn’t have enough of the devices.
Q: Do you recall when the university decided to refocus basic science labs on research and testing for COVID-19?
A: In January, I was sitting in the office of Dr. Jakub Tolar, the dean of the medical school, to determine our strategy. That meeting evolved over time to include four pillars. The first thing we decided was the need for our own testing capacity. With COVID-19 tests, we were pretty sure that there were going to be supply chain issues. We had to be independent of companies that made commercial tests and it had to be scalable so we could meet what we thought the demand might be. The second thing was treatment for COVID-19. We knew that there were no treatments that were recognized as being effective so we needed to be able to rapidly evaluate and assess new treatments. The third thing was clinical care. We knew that if things took off in Minnesota, our system, M Health Fairview, could be overwhelmed. So we needed to quickly build the capacity to care for patients. The final part was basic research to get us in position to think about vaccine development and advanced diagnostics.
Q: Was it easy to pivot?
A: No, but we had already started to shut down research laboratories at the university because of the stay-at-home orders so it made it easier to make the pivot to re-purpose the Microbiology Research Facility. We had a whole floor that was essentially empty and it was adjacent to another lab where we were going to do another part of the testing, so we just moved in there. Once we made the decision, everything fell into place.
Q: Did researchers have to halt existing projects on other ailments?
A: Most of the research at the university was put on hold because of the pandemic. Most of our faculty were off-campus, doing what they could. The only research that could happen on campus was COVID-related research. There were numerous faculty that came in and said, “How can we help?” We thought it likely that supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) would be a real problem, just based on what we saw happening in China and elsewhere. We engaged with our Institute for Engineering in Medicine and said, “How can we build our own PPE and not be part of the supply chain problem?” That’s where the mask effort came in. We can make [our own masks]. That institute also is where the testing booths came from. It looks like a phone booth and is used at many M Health Fairview testing centers, so health care workers don’t use as much PPE when collecting samples. One of our medical residents took that idea one step further and asked if we could build something similar to put over patients as we extubate them. This way we could protect our health care workers from virus that could spread because of coughing and spreading of aerosols.
Q: How is the research in Minnesota contributing to our understanding of COVID-19?
A: In the clinical trial arena, there was the definitive answer on hydroxychloroquine. Our study showed the anti-malaria drug did not prevent onset of COVID-19. That was a big one. Another study drew on a database from UnitedHealthcare to show the common diabetes drug, metformin, had a protective benefit for some people with COVID-19. That was a big one. We and others have made significant contributions to our understanding of how natural antibodies work in COVID — the basic immunology. And our colleagues in the School of Public Health are translating that work into clinical trials nationwide.
Q: How did researchers pick their targets?
A: Most of what we’re doing is playing to our strengths. Our Center for Immunology has a lot of strength in T-cell biology and T-cell immunology, so they’re using that as an approach to designing a vaccine. In clinical trials, we’re a center that has led the field in what we call cell-based therapies for cancer, for example. We are applying those strategies to people with complicated, life-threatening COVID. So, for example, giving stem cells to people for COVID-19 pneumonia.
Q: The U generated headlines this spring by developing a low-cost ventilator in the lab. How did it happen?
A: A medical resident walked into my office and said, “I think we can build a ventilator for 50 bucks.” And I said, “Go.” A couple of days later, I walked into the lab and there it was. I mean, it was rough. Literally, it was a toolbox with a bag in it and it needed a lot of refinement. Right now we’re in the middle of a project to measure wastewater for the virus to see if we can predict where the next hot spot is going to be. This idea came from two young faculty at our Duluth campus. They repurposed their lab and set up this network of wastewater treatment plants from across the state and they have been collecting wastewater and testing it for the virus that causes COVID-19. They are having quite a bit of success with this approach.
Q: What inspires you most these days?
A: When we recognized what was coming our way, our faculty set aside everything and asked how they could help. From this energy, inspiration and creativity, all of these things have happened.