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How McMaster’s COVID-19 Research Fund enables scientists and students alike to engage in exciting research to fight the pandemic

Universities across the world have come together to conduct COVID-19 research. Some research projects have even entered phase three clinical trials. The brightest minds around the globe are all hard at work in the lab or hunched over a computer sifting through collected data to put an end to the ongoing pandemic. In the midst of all the headlines boasting of some institution’s cutting-edge research, have you perhaps wondered how McMaster is fighting against COVID-19? 

McMaster holds the title of the most research intensive university in Canada for good reason. Like many of the most advanced research institutions across the world, McMaster’s faculty and students have been working intensely on COVID-19 projects, from exploring the potential for new diagnostic tools to exploring potential drugs that inhibit the virus’ ability to infect human cells. Many such projects have been made possible by many grants and these include the McMaster COVID-19 Research Fund, a program whereby the university itself and donors are able to support research projects conducted at McMaster.

One recipient of the McMaster COVID-19 Research Fund is Dr. Richard Austin, a professor in the medical sciences graduate program. He is the research director at St. Joseph’s Healthcare for the Hamilton Center for Kidney Research and has been at McMaster for 25 years. His research interests are focused on understanding why those with chronic kidney disease are at a higher risk of death due to cardiovascular complications. While waiting for his lab to reopen after facing setbacks from COVID-19 regulations, Austin became interested in the potential of a connection between his work prior to the pandemic and the novel virus itself. 

C/O: Dr. Richard Austin. Richard Austin pictured here.

“We had stumbled upon a couple papers that were published actually showing that one of the cell surface proteins that we work on – GRP78 – was actually identified as a receptor that can combine to spike proteins on the virus and bring it into cells,” explains Austin.

Austin’s research lab has been hard at work looking further into the potential of this discovery he made when looking through the medical literature. His lab has since paired with a large scientific company in order to have access to different molecules that can bind to GRP78 and potentially block it and ultimately the entry of SARS-CoV-2 into human cells. The goal is to find out whether such a molecule may be used as a potential antiviral agent. 

C/O: Michal Moshkovich. Pictured here is Dr. Richard Austin’s research team.

“We have small molecules from another company that we’re working with that bind to surface GRP78,” said Austin. “So we’re going to [ask whether] if we take some of these small molecules, can they actually disrupt the interaction of GRP78 with the spike protein so it doesn’t get into the cell; so it could be an antiviral agent? That’s what we’re thinking.”

Austin’s research project has since grown and now involves an interdisciplinary team of researchers across McMaster. The team is now a collaboration of different faculties all working together to potentially uncover an antiviral agent. The team includes Dr. Karen Mossman, a virologist and professor in pathology and medicine, as well as a medicinal chemist. “One great thing about McMaster is the collaborative efforts we have,” explains Austin. “Here’s a product that’s sort of spurred out of an idea at three in the morning, when I was doing nothing and wanted to check on PubMed, into now, three investigators at McMaster that are actively looking at this whole process of GRP78.”

Another recipient of the McMaster COVID-19 Research Fund is Dr. Nikhil Pai, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics, division of gastroenterology & nutrition, for his current project, “A Prospective, Observational Study on the Diagnosis of COVID-19 Infection from Stool Samples of Children and Adults.” 

The project involves many collaborators across McMaster: Dr. Marek Smieja, Dr. Jeffrey Pernica, Lee Hill, Emily Hartung, Jelea Popov, Jodi Gilchrist, Julia Maciejewski, Dr. Mark Larché and Dr. Karen Mossman. 

C/O: Michal Moshkovich. Pictured here is from left to right: Dr. Nikhil Pai, Dr. Jeffrey Pernica, Dr. Marek Smieja.

However, also participating in this exciting project are two undergraduate students in the Bachelor of Health Sciences (Honours) Program, Michal Moshkovich and Melanie Figueirdo, in second and third year, respectively. Indeed, it is not only professors and PhD students who are invested in the fight against COVID-19, but the student community as well.

C/O: Michal Moshkovich. Pictured here is Michal Moshkovich and Melanie Figueiredo, the undergraduates involved in Dr. Pai’s project.

The study will help determine whether COVID-19 infection can be detected from stool samples, which could potentially revolutionize current diagnostic methods. This is especially important considering the high prevalence of asymptomatic patients or COVID-19 positive patients who test negative through nasopharyngeal swabs. 

We are testing stool obtained from patients across eight major adult and children’s hospitals serviced by south western Ontario’s regional virology laboratory,” explains Moshkovich. “This study will better define rates of community infection, increase diagnostic accuracy, broaden our understanding of disease transmission risks and potentially offer more economical approaches to COVID-19 testing.”

The study, which involves a large multidisciplinary team, has garnered attention from across the globe and professionals from abroad are reaching out to offer their own data to assist the study. This just goes to show the importance of collaboration in science, a field which can often seem uber-competitive, during global emergencies. 

What’s really incredible is how quickly we and the research community were able to pivot when there’s a global crisis happening to get important, relevant data out immediately,” explains Figueirdo. “We are doing this with a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, clinical pathologist, Director of lab medicine professional; we’ve gotten ministry of health support, McMaster university support and had phone calls with collaborators from Brazil back in February who wanted to share diagnostics with us. It’s very global and rapid; it feels great!”

What better way to spend your undergraduate career than by lending a hand to global COVID-19 research? Moshkovich and Figueirdo have definitely made the most of the pandemic and have had the unique experience of being involved in the nitty gritty of research that might eventually lead to COVID-19 patient care and global implementation of diagnostic techniques. For students also interested in getting involved in the fight against COVID-19 or simply impactful research in general, Moshkovich has an important message. 

“The world is evolving — everything is changing,” says Moshkovich. “Do not hesitate to reach out to specialists, practitioners, laboratory heads and offer a hand in making this change. Because that is exactly what we did!”

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