Researchers Report on Progress of COVID-19 Seed Grants

TAMPA, Fla. – A year after USF created the Pandemic Response Research Network and funded three rounds of seed grants to kickstart research into the challenges presented by the pandemic, research and innovations produced in the unprecedented effort continue to take shape. Recently, several teams shared updates on their projects and how they are leveraging their ideas to delve into the mysteries of this pandemic, but also address future viral outbreaks.

Among the projects highlighted were several supported by the Florida High Tech Corridor, which contributed $300,000 to bring the total investment in USF’s seed-grant projects to more than $1 million. The Corridor specifically supported 16 projects with new technology that through partnerships with private industry can be brought to market quickly. Corridor CEO Paul Sohl said the rapid progress made in the projects belies the false notion that university research takes too long to be effective.

“What you are doing right now is relevant to problems across the world,” Sohl told the resachers. “You are making an impact on folks who are suffering.”

Here are recaps of some of the USF COVID-19 research projects.

microbiome stock image

COVID-19 Animal Model Resource Development for Microbiome & Intervention Studies

Principal Investigators: Dr. Christian Brechot and Dr. Shyam Mohapatra, Morsani College of Medicine

Partners: Persephone Biosciences, San Diego; Venn Therapeutics and Ibis Therapeutics, Tampa

This project is developing preclinical models for use in Biosafety Level 3 and Animal Biological Safety Level 3 facilities that would allow researchers to work on infectious agents with the highest level of safety and security standards and practices. Led by Dr. Brechot, an internationally-known virologist who at USF has focused on the role of the gut microbiome in fighting disease, and Dr. Mohapatra, a USF Distinguished Professor who invents new nano-scale therapies for a wide range of diseases, the high-level labs and new preclinical model will allow scientists to pursue translational research on new vaccines and therapies.

Christian Brechot Shyam Mohapatra

Dr. Christian Brechot and Dr. Shyam Mohapatra

The preclinical model the research ream developed uses a hepatitis virus which in mice develops the same symptoms of a SARS-CoV-2 infection shown in humans. Some mice have slight body temperature increases, some have body weight decline with similar infiltration and inflammation in the lungs, the researchers said. The team is also focused on developing a model for long COVID-19 where symptoms persist for weeks and months after the virus should have been cleared from the body.

“Our models have been developed, now we can use it to test vaccines, treatments, and prophylactic methods,” Dr. Mohapatra said.

Two papers and several patent disclosures have already emerged from their work.

covid mask team

Dr. Yogi Goswami; Dr. Stephen Saddow; Mark Weston, AIA; and Dr. Michael Celestin.

Plasmonic-PECO integrated with mask/respirator/ventilator for protection against COVID-19

Principal Investigator: Dr. Yogi Goswami, College of Engineering.

CO-PIs: Dr. Stephen Saddow, College of Engineering; Mark Weston, AIA, School of Architecture and Community Design, College of the Arts; Dr. Michael Celestin, Senior Research Engineer.

USF Distinguished Professor of Engineering Yogi Goswami’s air purifying technology gave rise to his invention, Molekule, an air purification device capable of destroying a wide range of viruses, bacteria, spores and hazardous organic chemicals. Last year, Molekule met the FDA performance standards set for effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2 in its Air, Air Mini and Air Pro RX devices. Now, Dr. Goswami is taking an advanced version of the technology to build better ventilators and safer masks for healthcare workers.

molekule mask

The underlying technology of the Molekule air purifier is being built upon to create more effective safety masks for healthcare providers and other professions needing purified air to work safely.

Molekule’s proprietary photo-electrochemical oxidation (PECO) technology uses UVA light to destroy viruses. Dr. Goswami has advanced his original invention, naming it Advancement Plasmonic PECO. The patent-pending technology is small enough that it can be incorporated into ventilators and face masks.

“We know now that COVID infections are primarily airborne,” Dr. Goswami said. “So, masks are essential in this pandemic, in fact it might be something we need for a long, long time.”

Dr. Goswami said the new masks designs include the ability to purify the air as the wearer is breathing in, and then purify the air the wearer exhales. “It protects the wearer, and others around the wearer, which is what hospitals require,” he said.

Dr. Goswami is collaborating with USF School of Architecture and Community Design Associate Professor Mark Weston, an expert in design, and USF Electrical Engineering Professor Stephen Saddow to create a mask design and accompanying power source.

“Just because we have a scientific advancement in PECO technology, doesn’t mean we will have a commercially successful device unless we have a design which is good for utility, comfort and aesthetics,” Dr. Goswami said. “That’s why we formed this team which includes scientists, engineers as well as professionals in design.”

Weston said one of the problems with masks is in being able to hear the wearer speaking clearly, so the new mask has been equipped with a clear window and microphone, along with valves that ensure air is moving in the proper direction in and out of the mask. “The purpose of industrial design isn’t just making a pretty thing, it also improves the functionality of the device,” he said.

In addition to being useful in protecting the wearer against viruses, Dr. Goswami said the mask also could be used to protect people in heavily polluted areas of the world or in emergencies that cause breathing problems, such as wildfires.

Anna Pyayt

Dr. Anna Pyayt

Portable system for COVID-19 antibody testing based on Mobile ELISA, Deep Learning and AI

Principal Investigator: Dr. Anna Pyayt, College of Engineering.

Pharmaceutical and virology experts say it’s highly likely that people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine will need to get a booster in the future to ensure their antibodies are at the proper levels to fight the virus. But what remains uncertain is when will be the best time to receive a booster shot, and how people will know when to get one. USF College of Engineering Associate Professor Anna Pyayt believes that a simple, portable device can answer those questions.

She has developed a small, inexpensive and rapid system that can measure antibodies without creating a time-consuming or costly process that may not be covered by insurance. Also, the current antibody tests only detect whether there are antibodies present or not, but doesn’t tell people anything about the level of antibodies, she said. Overstimulation of the immune system of a person who still have protective levels of COVID-19 antibodies present can be as undesirable as having too few antibodies, she said.

For several years, Dr. Pyayt has worked in developing medical testing devices that can be integrated with a cell phone to provide a simple point-of-care tool. The project builds upon the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) technology, which has existed since the early 1970s, which detects the presence of specific proteins and accurately measures them. ELISA is a frequently used diagnostic tool, but Dr. Pyayt has taken the technology further to adapt it to use with a cell phone to create an easy-access testing system.

“We want to determine if you still have enough antibodies for your freedom and safety,” she said, adding the test could be easily administered at walk-in clinics or pharmacies.

covid economic impact

Satellite imagery shows the difference in traffic at area malls before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Images courtesy of Dr. Sudeep Sarkar.

COVID-19 Economic Recovery Markers from Satellite Imagery for City-Scale Decisions

Principal Investigator: Dr. Sudeep Sarkar, College of Engineering.

Co-PIs: Dr. Barnali Dixon, School of Geoscience, USF College of Arts and Sciences; Dr. Zsolt Katona, University of California Berkeley; Dr. Mauricio Pamplona Segundo, USF College of Engineering; Dr. Panos Patatoukas, University of California Berkeley.

A transdisciplinary team from USF, the University of California Berkeley, and Colorado-based satellite company Maxar Technologies, is developing a new artificial intelligence-enabled system that uses satellite imagery to document and analyze the effects of travel bans and shutdown orders on the local economy quickly and economically, from a single source.

The project develops city-scale economic trend forecasts based on satellite images taken at regular intervals and augmented with information from other sources such as community mobility data, flight tracker data, and railway tracking data said Distinguished University Professor Sudeep Sarkar, co-director of USF’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI+X). For example, if city officials want to know how effective a shutdown order is or if the economic recovery is going as planned, the new system will capture vehicle traffic and analyze images of parking lots of local malls and restaurants to determine how use has changed over time.

In October, the project won prizes from the European Space Agency for the best weekly and monthly ideas for their script that tracked airplanes in the air and on the ground. In the final phase of the competition, the developed algorithms had to be scaled up and process data across Europe. The solution had to be integrated into the Rapid Action on Coronavirus and EO (RACE) portal.

sudeep sarkar

Dr. Sudeep Sarkar

The team applied the new technology to Tampa’s 2020 shutdown and found that the early months of the pandemic weren’t as problematic for local destinations like shopping mall – where occupancy was initially low, but then quickly rebounded – or locations in the downtown, where parking lot occupancy was the same as before the pandemic, Dr. Sarkar said. Meanwhile, other destinations saw an impact as more people worked from home and didn’t venture out for lunches or after-work socialization.

Dr. Sarkar said the satellite imagery can support analysts and policymakers’ decision-making by providing a different kind of visibility into the unfolding economic changes not captured by other data sources. The analytics effort produces insights so quickly, a city can know if there programs are effective as they are rolling them out. After the team won a top prize from the European Space Agency in a COVID-19 monitoring challenge, the project was integrated into the agency’s data monitoring dashboard, he said. Their analysis early in 2021 showed European air traffic is still lagging, a sign of continuing economic trouble.

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