Purdue researchers leap to discover more about coronavirus

University provides an overview of ongoing COVID-19 R&D efforts, many of which began in February

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.—As the novel coronavirus pandemic approached 1 million cases worldwide, Purdue University researchers had already launched more than 30 research projects and have applied for funding for nearly 20 additional projects.
Theresa Mayer, executive vice president for research and partnerships, says the research at Purdue on aspects of the pandemic began more than two months ago.
“Many of our scientists and engineers began shifting their work to the novel coronavirus soon after it first became known, even before the first scientific articles about the virus were published in early February,” she said. “For example, Andy Mesecar, who has studied various coronaviruses for most of his career, received genetic information about the virus on Friday, January 17, and began synthesizing the genes for producing a set of target proteins that would make suitable drug targets.
“Our faculty members have responded with urgency and energy to address this global pandemic.”
Richard Kuhn, Purdue’s Trent and Judith Anderson Distinguished Professor in Science and the Krenicki Family Director of the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease, said that a wide variety of Purdue researchers have come forward saying that they are working to understand, prevent, treat and overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some of our researchers are part of national or international collaborative research projects, and some launched research just with their labs, many establishing internal Purdue teams. Either way, we’ve had an outpouring of researchers who are doing what they can to address this global problem.”
Kuhn, who chairs Purdue’s Coronavirus Research Task Force, is editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Virology.
The research being conducted at Purdue falls into these general areas:
Understanding the virus and improving scientific methods: Discovering more about how SARS-CoV-2 infects cells, developing methods that can amplify extremely small amounts of the viral genome to complement current testing methods, and purifying and producing specific proteins from the virus to aid in drug screening and vaccine development.
Researchers involved in this effort include Kuhn; Raluca Ostafe, director of the Molecular Evolution, Protein Engineering, and Production facility; Jorge Rodriguez, an associate professor of physics; Cagri Savran, a professor of mechanical engineering; and W. Andy Tao, a professor of biochemistry.
Development of diagnostic tools
Efforts on finding individuals with COVID-19 and engineering improved diagnostic tools is the focus of six research efforts, which include paper tests that are similar to home pregnancy tests, developing a sensing device that can detect SARS-CoV-2 from saliva and optical sensing tools that can detect minute quantities of the virus.
Researchers working in this on diagnostic tools include Lia Stanciu-Gregory, a professor of materials engineering; Jacqueline Linnes, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Tamara Kinzer-Ursem, an associate professor of biomedical engineering; and Mohit Verma, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering.
Development of therapeutics
Purdue has a long history of success in drug discovery. One of the researchers involved in coronavirus research, Arun Ghosh, developed an antiviral HIV/AIDS drug, Darunvir (which includes his name in the product name, D-Arun-vir). Current efforts include screening and identifying compounds that are potential antiviral drugs, raising antibodies to neutralize the virus and discovering vaccine components.
Researchers involved in this effort include Ruben C. Aguilar, an associate professor of biological sciences; Vincent “Jo” Davisson, a professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology; Arun Ghosh, Purdue’s Ian P. Rothwell Distinguished Professor of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry; Philip Low, Purdue’s Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry; and Robert Stahelin, who deals with medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology.
Improving current medical supplies
Purdue engineers in several departments have been looking at medical supplies that are in short supply and investigating if there are ways to produce them faster or produce products that can be disinfected more easily.
An effort to develop injection molded N95 masks which use replaceable filters and can be disinfected, includes Nathan Hartman, Purdue’s Dauch Family Professor of Advanced Manufacturing, head of Computer Graphics Technology and co-executive director of the Indiana Next-Generation Manufacturing Competitiveness Center; David McMillan, assistant director of Bechtel Innovation Design Center; Paul McPherson, an assistant professor of engineering technology; Andrew Miller, laboratory manager for biological sciences; Andrew Pierce, assistant director of Engineering Projects in Community Service; Mark Sharpe, technical directorof the College of Pharmacy; and Brian Overshiner, manager of the Indiana University Health 3D Innovation Project Lab.
Thomas Sors, assistant director of the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology, and Infectious Disease, said that in addition to the expertise found in the university faculty, Purdue also has a wealth of advanced research tools found in laboratories in Discovery Park that is speeding the work.
“Purdue has state-of-the-art equipment that allows us to address many of the scientific issues of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have robotic bioassay machines, advanced cryo-electron microscopes, advanced molecular detection technologies and a high-level biocontainment laboratory that allows for virus and drug testing. We’ve been able to give our scientists the tools they need to speed the science.”

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