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Flexibility, Ingenuity, Perseverance

Throughout the shelter-in-place order issued by the governor of Illinois effective March 21, and as declining rates of infection allowed us to reopen our labs in mid-June, RFU has followed and in many cases exceeded the health and safety guidelines mandated by the Restore Illinois plan and promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in addition to best practices developed by the AAMC’s Group on Research Advancement and Development (GRAND). Here, several directors in the Innovation and Research Park reflect on how they and their teams are coping in the time of COVID.

Amiel Rosenkranz, PhD, director, Brain Science Institute

I am extremely grateful to colleagues who have made sacrifices in order to help treat patients or advance our knowledge about this virus over the past few months. Many of us went into a career in science with the hope that we would make discoveries that could help others. So it has been frustrating to sit on the sidelines of this tremendous public health emergency — with less to offer from a professional standpoint. Due partly to the expected long-term mental health impact of COVID-19, we have begun a collaboration with RFU immunologist Joseph Reynolds, PhD, to try to understand how illnesses, such as COVID-19, can have an enduring impact on mood and emotion. COVID-19 can negatively impact mental health due to the many stressors associated with illness, and increasing financial and social effects of a global pandemic. However, there is also a direct biological impact of many infections on the same brain regions that contribute to depression and anxiety. Our collaboration will hopefully uncover how infections change the activity of these brain regions, and may even help us discover a new approach to reduce the harmful effects of infections on mood and emotion.

Marc Glucksman, PhD, director, Center for Proteomics and Molecular Therapeutics

Our principal investigators and their teams have demonstrated an ability to adjust quickly and effectively to the new “normal” while staying healthy. Despite physical absence from our new research building, we have been productive with endeavors in “tele-research.” Constant communication with our researchers, students and staff has been key to coping with the transition away from and back to our labs. While our hands may have been tied with respect to experiments in the lab, our minds are open and creative as we make tangible progress from our own virtual offices. Investigators are writing papers, submitting grants and several are reinventing goals and applying their expertise toward tackling COVID-19. Virtual collaborations have always been shared among domestic and international colleagues, but “Zooming” has encouraged enhanced partnerships between faculty at our university.

Our center’s ongoing patient-based studies in biomarkers for disease diagnosis, prognosis and targeted treatments have progressed despite the time away from the lab and clinic, as we focus on deeper dives into collected data and meta-analyses. My laboratory has developed a new project investigating the entry receptor for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to human cells — angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). We are very familiar with ACE2 from our 20-year work in the structural and functional aspects of two closely related neuropeptide processing enzymes. We have biological and atomic resolution data for these proteins, which exhibit similar functions as ACE2. We’re excited about the possibility of contributing to COVID-19 research.

Michelle Hastings, PhD, director, Center for Genetic Diseases

Our center is in a unique position to approach research related to COVID-19. As a group, we have collective expertise in structural biology, airway disease, and therapeutic testing and discovery that can inform and facilitate the development of treatments for severe disease associated with the infection. David Mueller, PhD, a structural biologist and biochemist, initiated a project to study the antigenicity of SARS-CoV-2 proteins that could lead to the production of antibodies for vaccines. Robert Bridges, PhD, and Neil Bradbury, PhD, both work on the airway and gut epithelial cells, which are a primary infection target of the virus, providing them the opportunity to test therapeutics and infection mechanisms in a relevant cell type. The nucleic acid therapeutic platform I use to manipulate gene expression is an ideal tool for targeting the virus and host cell factors that facilitate viral success. Collectively, we make up a strong team that can combine skills to identify and test creative approaches to tackle a problem of utmost importance to our society. While the time away from the lab has been a setback for work at the bench, it allowed us to carefully study what is known about the virus and consider ways that we can work together to contribute to advances in COVID-19 research.

Johnny He, PhD, director, Center for Cancer Cell Biology, Immunology and Infection

Biomedical research often requires access to various equipment and involves on-site experimentation. Illinois’ stay-at-home policy brought our research to a complete halt, except for activities deemed critical, such as maintaining animals and cultures. Our faculty, staff and students all initially shared a lot of concerns and anxieties. For instance, our faculty and staff were concerned about the research progress of the funded projects, while our students were anxious about their dissertation research and graduation plans. Nevertheless, because of careful planning under the leadership, particularly the leadership of the Office of Sponsored Research, our transition from on-site work to work at home — and back again — turned out to be more seamless than expected. We were able to catch up on the backlog of reading (scientific literature) and writing (manuscripts and grant proposals). In the meantime, we all thought about new research collaborations and funding opportunities on COVID-19. Those include therapeutics, prophylactic and preventive vaccines, immunology, virology and pathogenesis.