University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) scientists are pursuing many research projects as part of the global response to SARS CoV-2, (virus that causes COVID-19). These studies seek to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease; others aim to understand how it spreads and how people’s immune systems respond.
Several ongoing projects using a variety of applicable methods/tools (e.g., antibody/genomic testing, existing medications) seek to better protect health care workers and all Arkansans from coronavirus infection. Read about a COVID-19 research showcase.
Participate in COVID-19 Research
The ARresearch Registry connects people with research teams who are working to uncover new information and treatments for all Arkansans. If you are eligible for a study, researchers may contact you to provide additional details on how to participate. Join the Registry.
Transmission — Preventing and understanding how the coronavirus spreads
Investigate the Transmission of SARS‐CoV‐2 to Infants via Human Milk
Aline Andres, PhD, RD, and Laxmi Yeruva, PhD
Andres and Yeruva are conducting studies to evaluate the ways in which a mother’s breast milk may be affected when she is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. For breastfed infants, human milk provides nutrition/protection against some infections, but can also transmit pathogens. Studies have not yet shown whether SARS-CoV-2 is one such pathogen. Andres and Yeruva, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Idaho, looked for the virus in breast milk from women during SARS-CoV-2 infection and for antibodies to the virus in the milk. No virus was detected in the milk samples, but antibodies specific for SARS-COV-2 were detectable 2 months after infection. Next, the team will measure these antibodies in serum collected from women and infants several months after infection. This research helps provide guidance on breastfeeding safety for mothers infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Arkansas Healthcare Preparedness Program
Greg Stanger, MS
Stanger and his team coordinated preparedness activities to respond and prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. Focusing on safety, they provided training and purchased protective equipment for health care workers. Preparations were made to ensure that the facility was capable of caring for an increased number of patients and that the health care workers were competent and safe in caring for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients. To establish infection control, physical infrastructure was examined and enhanced, including patient flow and handling contaminated waste. Collaboration continues to support providers in caring for target populations and implementing crisis standards of care.
ACE2 to Predict Outcomes in Infection with SARS-CoV-2
John Arthur, M.D., Ph.D.
COVID-19 severity ranges from asymptomatic to deadly, but there is no way to predict which patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 will develop severe symptoms. Arthur and his team are investigating approaches to accurately make this prediction on the basis of specific features of proteins and DNA in the blood of individual patients. Identifying patients at highest risk of severe disease could save lives by designating the appropriate treatment at an early stage.
Sprayable Plant-based Surface Coatings Target the COVID-19 Virus
Peter Crooks, Ph.D., Jamie Hestekin, Ph.D., and Christa Hestekin, Ph.D.
Crooks at UAMS and colleagues at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville have developed a sprayable surface coating that quickly destroys viruses. Using a plant-based nanomaterial, they have developed coatings that kill bacteria by attaching molecules that also kill viruses like COVID-19. A durable product applied to frequently touched objects like door knobs and packaging will be critical to reducing coronavirus spread. See the full research abstract.
Novel Intubating Frame to Reduce Contamination in COVID-19 Patients
Faiza A. Khan, M.D., Zachary B. Lewis, M.D., Sina B. Ekici, M.D. and Nadir Sharawi, M.B.B.S.
Aerosol generating procedures (e.g., intubation/extubation), pose significant risk to health care providers. Several devices or barrier enclosures (e.g., aerosol box and face tent) have been created/modified to minimize risk. However, limitations such as restricted hand movement makes simulated intubation scenarios difficult. A UAMS emergency medicine team devised a novel, reusable and easy-to-assemble PVC frame with HEPA filter and suction port that facilitates virus particle removal.
Treatment — Finding ways to treat those infected
UAMS Receives FDA Authorization for Convalescent Plasma Use
Tina S. Ipe, M.D., MPH
This authorization ensures that convalescent plasma collected in Arkansas will benefit Arkansas patients through a statewide convalescent plasma effort. This program provides the ability to explore potential treatment in Arkansas. Covid convalescent plasma (CCP) is the blood component collected from people who have recovered from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. The plasma contains antibodies that can help fight infection.
Developing Reagents to Enable Antibody-mediated Antiviral Therapies Against COVID-19 (DREAM ATAC)
Craig Forrest, Ph.D.
Forrest has teamed with Drs. Karl Boehme and Joshua Kennedy to investigate antibodies produced by the immune system in response to SARS-CoV-2. They will analyze antibodies in blood serum that was donated by people who have recovered from COVID-19, which can be used as an emergency treatment. The results can be used to identify potential donors for this type of treatment. The team also will determine the percentage of people in the population who have antibodies against the virus, helping to define the epidemiology of COVID-19 in Arkansas.
A Radiation Mitigator as a Potential Treatment for COVID-19
Robert J. Griffin, Nukhet Aykin-Burns, Michael Borrelli, and Peter M Corry
The Corry/Griffin research groups used FDA approved antioxidant N-acetylcysteine (NAC) as a radiation mitigant and to block vascular shutdown. Briefly, 62% of mice were rescued from a lethal 20 Gy dose of ionizing radiation, localized to the abdomen, by the administration of NAC up to four hours post irradiation. Moreover, NAC was able to blunt/eliminate the adhesion molecule induction associated with vascular shutdown/hypoxemia. Cytokine storms are involved in COVID-19 critical patients and NAC treatment has the potential to reduce mechanical ventilation and mortality.
SARS-CoV-2 Cross-protection Study using Surrogate Coronavirus and Recombinant Proteins
Marli P. Azevedo, Ph.D.; Lisa Mullis; Bruce Erickson, Ph.D.; Kuppan Gokulan, Ph.D.; Sangeeta Khare, Ph.D. and R. Doug Wagner, Ph.D.
Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE) has been reported to occur during SARS-CoV infection and likely SARS-CoV-2. Therefore, successful vaccines depend on the role of the S protein in ADE and examining alternative solutions (e.g., select epitopes for a vaccine target). By generating recombinant SARS-CoV-2 and NL63 Spike proteins in a baculovirus system, generate polyclonal antibodies against the rS were made. We have identified epitope peptides from the spike protein and will select antigenic epitopes capable of inducing neutralizing antibodies to prevent viral entry/infection, screening to avoid ADE.
Can Oxygen Carrier Molecules Offer Neuroprotection in Oxygen deficient Conditions such as During Severe COVID-19-induced Pneumonia?
Abdallah Hayar, Ph.D.
Prolonged hypoxia due to lung infection by SARS-CoV-2 can disrupt synaptic transmission and cause neuronal cell death. This can disrupt the brain’s ability to coordinate breathing/heart rate thus augmenting multiple organ failure and death. Mechanical ventilation, an essential tool in ICU care of COVID-19 patients, can overstretch the lungs and cause lung injury/inflammation. Several perfluorocarbons can carry oxygen and may be used to treat hypoxic COVID-19 patients. In particular, DDFPe is safe to treat acute ischemic stroke patients. Whether DDFPe improves oxygen exchange in a mouse model and/or has neuroprotective effects on brainstem cardiorespiratory neurons is being investigated. If positive, DDFPe may improve oxygenation in COVID-19 patients.
Development of a High-density Protein Array for COVID-19 Antibody Binding Assays
Visanu Wanchai, Ph.D., Søren Brunak, Ph.D., David Hirschberg, Ph.D., and David Ussery, Ph.D.
Viruses have limited genome sizes, but can encode many proteins, taking advantage of multiple reading frames, mRNA editing, and alternative splicing. A high density protein array, containing 4 million probes (16mer peptides) from a set of several thousand genomes from the coronavirus family was designed. These high density arrays will be probed by antibodies from sera from ~1,000 COVID-19 positive patients (Washington state) and frozen blood sera for the control set. We anticipate finding strong epitopes for designing COVID-19 specific antibodies with little cross reactivity with other coronaviruses.
AR-Connect – Mental Health Services
Teresa Hudson, Ph.D.
Easy access to substance abuse and mental health care is important, but particularly urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute, partnered with the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Division of Aging, Adult, and Behavioral Health Services has created AR-Connect, a 24/7 behavioral health call center. AR-Connect provides care to all Arkansans dealing with a variety of mental-health issues, from substance abuse disorders to mental illnesses ranging from anxiety/depression to bipolar disorder/schizophrenia. AR-Connect helps Arkansans get immediate assistance and eventually connects them with treatment options in their local area. AR Connect resides within the Institute for Digital Health & Innovation’s telehealth platform.
Prevention — Stopping COVID-19 before it can take hold
A Lung Model for studying COVID-19 Pathogenesis and Antiviral Drug Discovery
Xuming Zhang, Ph.D. and Roger Pechous, Ph.D.
Zhang, Pechous, and their team are investigating the impact of COVID-19 on the respiratory tract. A better understanding of the virus’ effects on the lungs will help health care professionals manage the disease outcome. Using a human lung tissue model that mirrors normal lung function, the team will determine the cell types infected by the virus and their pathological changes, as well as the immune response to the infection. This research will also examine candidate drugs that are known to be effective against other coronaviruses.
Identification of Compounds to Inhibit SARS-Cov-2
Kevin Raney, Ph.D., and Peter Crooks, Ph.D.
Working together, the Raney and Crooks labs are pursuing therapies that prevent the COVID-19 virus from replicating. The enzymes responsible for viral replication provide the best targets for developing new therapies. Using sophisticated computer simulation and a library of compounds, they hope to identify potential enzymes to produce a new class of highly specific antiviral therapies.
PCORI – Impact of COVID-19 Outbreak on Minority Health and Health Disparities
Pearl McElfish, Ph.D.
Minority communities, such as Pacific Islanders in Northwest Arkansas, are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Pearl McElfish, Ph.D., and her team compare the effectiveness of preventive interventions for minority communities to ultimately reduce the disparities caused by COVID-19. As a supplement to an existing PCORI award, the team will conduct a mixed-methods concurrent triangulation study to increase knowledge of COVID-19 risk exposure in Pacific Islanders, community members’ knowledge of preventive recommendations, and barriers/facilitators to prevention and COVID-19 testing. Pacific Islander community members will complete an extensive 48-item survey with 40 participants chosen randomly to complete an in-depth qualitative interview.
Epidemiology & Testing — Understanding how the coronavirus is spreading
Exploratory Analysis of Social Network Messages
Chenghui Li, Ph.D.
Li and her team will be exploring social network messages to understand public attitudes and behaviors during the COVID-19 outbreak. Analyzing online conversations could help public health officials respond to and understand the dynamics of the spread of information and misinformation about the pandemic. The group will apply state-of-the-art artificial intelligence and data collection techniques to Twitter to characterize public understanding and conduct surrounding COVID-19.
Detection of Covid-19 from a Wastewater Treatment Plant in Conway, Arkansas
Catherine Shoults, Tom Powell, Ph.D., Jing Jin, Ph.D., Mohammed Orloff, Ph.D., David Hirschberg, Ph.D., and Dave Ussery, Ph.D.
The SARS-CoV-2 genome (shed in feces) has been detected in hospital and community wastewater. In fact, several U.S. communities are being monitored for COVID-19 presence in wastewater treatment plant sludge samples. Two sludge samples were assayed from a Conway, Arkansas wastewater treatment plant for the COVID-19 genome. Estimates of community infection were compared to individual testing, (e.g., rRT-PCR and antibody studies).
Rapid Detection of Coronavirus Infection in Rural and Underserved Communities
John Arthur, MD, PhD
The lack of SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity in rural and underserved communities prevents case tracking and can lead to rapid community spread of the virus. In collaboration with the National Center for Toxicological Research, Arthur and his team are working on testing a mass spectroscopy technology that is transportable to these locations and capable of providing near real-time testing results. The resulting mass spectral output is then interpreted by computer software capable of recognizing the unique signatures of specific viruses, including SARS-CoV-2. The system is capable of testing 500 samples per day and will be validated against the current UAMS PCR-based SARS-CoV-2 test. If proven feasible, the system will allow for real-time testing results coupled with the initiation of contact tracing at the point of diagnosis, likely providing substantial improvements in outcomes for rural and underserved communities.
Community/Health Disparity — Combating COVID-19 in Communities
Disparities in Immune Response to SARS-CoV-2 in Arkansas
Wendy Nembhard, PhD, MPH, FACE
Nembhard and her team aim to determine the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic on the physical, psychological, and social health of underrepresented communities. The team will follow 450 racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse adults in Arkansas that were confirmed positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. From these adults, blood samples will be collected until 48 months after the initial positive test. Analyses will examine antibodies specific to the virus and changes in antibody levels over time. The 5-year study explores whether any racial/ethnic disparities in COVID-19 may be due to differences in the patient’s antibody response to the virus.
Consumer Health Information on COVID-19 Not Ideally Readable or Actionable
B. Alison Caballero, MPH, CHES; Katherine J. Leath, MPH, M.A.; and Jamie C. Watson, Ph.D.
Similarities exist between populations at risk for severe COVID-19 and populations at risk for limited health literacy. Because individual behaviors impact disease spread, educational materials must be easy to read/understand, especially in high-risk groups. Online COVID-19 materials were measured for readability, understandability, and actionability with readability formulas and a Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool. Mean readability scores were at a high school reading level and plain language techniques for optimal understanding/action were often missing. Given health literacy limitations for those at high risk for severe COVID-19, clear communications are essential. COVID-19 health education in vulnerable populations must follow plain language guidelines and be tested prior to use.
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of High-Risk Populations – PCORI
Keneshia Bryant, Ph.D.
The general population is likely to experience anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health disorders related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, people with a history of mental illness and/or substance abuse, those who are incarcerated, and frontline health care and essential workers are at even greater risk for these disorders. Bryant’s team consulted multiple stakeholder groups to establish the COVID-19 Emotional Wellness Task Force and develop a COVID-19 Emotional Wellness research agenda with the long-term goal of supporting those at greatest risk of experiencing a mental health crisis due to the pandemic.