UBC receives $14 million in federal funding for COVID-19 research

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have received a combined total of $14.3 million in grants in the latest round of funding from the federal government in support of research aimed at addressing the health challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In total, 19 teams at UBC working in drug research, global health, obstetrics, medical imaging, public health, and Indigenous health are receiving support as part of a $109-million investment in research projects by the federal government, focused on accelerating the development, testing, and implementation of measures to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19 and its negative consequences on people, communities, and health systems.

"This new federal investment will enable UBC researchers to further contribute valuable insights into medical and societal responses to COVID-19," said Gail Murphy, vice-president, research and innovation at UBC. "These research projects, which range from developing treatments to addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable and marginalized populations, could have national and global impacts, and we are grateful for this support."

The UBC-led projects being supported by this funding range from the creation of an integrated rapid-response network for emergency departments across Canada and the development of genetic libraries, to research into the dual health emergencies of overdose and COVID-19 and studies into the long-term effects of COVID-19 on brain health.

The Government of Canada is providing the funding for this research through CIHR and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), in partnership with Alberta Innovates (AI), Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), Research Manitoba (RM), Research Nova Scotia (RNS), Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF), and the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation (NBHRF).

Research findings and data produced as a result of the funding will be shared rapidly and openly (in line with the joint statement on sharing research data and findings relevant to the novel coronavirus outbreak) to inform the global public health response and to help save lives.

Below is a list of the UBC projects receiving funding:

Using computers to develop drug cocktails for COVID-19

An international consortium of researchers led by Dr. Artem Cherkasov, professor in the department of urologic sciences and senior scientist at the Vancouver Prostate Centre and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, and Dr. François Jean, associate professor in UBC's faculty of science department microbiology and immunology, is receiving $2.1 million from CIHR to use artificial intelligence to search for SARS-CoV-2 inhibitors among known drugs. They will work to identify antiviral drugs that can work synergistically with antiviral therapy remdesivir to boost its effectiveness and block SARS-CoV-2, similar to the drug "cocktails" used in treating HIV and hepatitis C infections. This research will be performed at UBC FINDER, one of the largest university-based containment level 3 facilities in the world, founded by Dr. Jean.

Using nanoparticles to deliver antibody therapy against COVID-19

Dr. Pieter Cullis, a professor in the faculty of medicine at UBC and researcher at Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, is receiving $237,445 from CIHR towards developing an antibody therapy for COVID-19. The study will use lipid nanoparticles to carry genetic instructions for the antibody to the liver, resulting in the secretion of antibodies that target the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Cullis predicts that this therapy, which could protect healthcare workers from infection and treat patients infected with the virus, would be a candidate for clinical testing within one year.

Tracking household transmission of COVID-19 in Africa

A team led by Dr. Soren Gantt, associate professor and head of the division of infectious diseases in the department of pediatrics at the UBC, is receiving $450,635 from CIHR to study and track the household transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Africa. His team will examine patterns of SARS-CoV-2 transmission among children and adults in an established cohort of >200 households in Nairobi, Kenya, to garner insight into the global COVID-19 pandemic, and guide public health interventions in resource-limited settings.

Creating a genetic library to support drug development

Dr. Kurt Haas, professor in the department of cellular and physiological sciences at UBC, is receiving $172,414 from CIHR to examine how different genetic variants of the human ACE2 protein interact with the spike protein on the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2. Researchers in the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health will create genetic libraries of ACE2 variants, and test how the SARS-CoV-2 binds to them, which is how it infects host cells. Results may identify genetic contributions to disease expression, and this library will be available to test emerging drug therapies and aid efforts to develop novel therapeutics.

Identifying patients at risk of severe complications using sequencing technology

Bob Hancock, UBC Killam professor in the department of microbiology and immunology, is receiving $422,084 from CIHR to lead a research project that will use genomic methods to identify which patients with COVID-19 are at higher risk of developing life-threatening sepsis. Teams in Vancouver and Quebec will use next-generation RNA sequencing technology to examine the complete gene expression profiles of severely ill patients, with the goal of enabling early diagnosis of patients more likely to develop severe sepsis, and identifying potential treatment strategies.

Creating an emergency COVID-19 rapid response network

Dr. Corinne Hohl, associate professor in the UBC department of emergency medicine and scientist at the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Evaluation and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, is receiving $2.5 million from CIHR to develop national standardized data collection, assessment and treatment protocols for COVID-19 in emergency departments. The ED Network will harmonize data collection across Canada and develop, evaluate and implement clinical decision rules for COVID-19 patients in emergency departments. The project is also receiving $250,000 from Genome BC and $75,000 from the BC Academic Health Sciences Network.

Assessing the impact of COVID-19 public health measures on young people

A team led by Rodney Knight, assistant professor in the faculty of medicine, is receiving $187,064 from CIHR to examine how public health measures, such as social distancing, affect the longer-term social and health of youth under 30. Researchers in Canada and France will use a range of research methods to document how policy and program responses can be optimized the improve the lives of youth in both countries.

Utilizing health system data to respond to COVID-19 in seven resource-poor countries

Michael Law, director of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research and professor in the UBC School of Population and Public Health, is receiving $341,941 from CIHR to co-lead a study aimed at reducing the impact of COVID-19 in resource-poor countries. Working with Partners In Health, the researchers will use health information systems to monitor for potential COVID-19 hotspots and monitor changes in health services use in Haiti, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mexico, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. This data will be used to help inform national public health responses to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Examining the impact of COVID-19 on the brain

Teresa Liu-Ambrose, professor in the department of physical therapy at UBC and researcher at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, is receiving $722,703 from CIHR to investigate the possible impact of COVID-19 on cognition and the brain post-infection. To achieve this, she will be measuring both cognitive function and acquire brain scans from Canadians aged 55 to 80 years, enrolled in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. Researchers will compare the cognitive function, brain structure, and brain function of adults with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 with those who are symptom-free or who have tested negative.

Tracking maternal and infant outcomes among pregnant women with COVID-19

A team led by Dr. Deborah Money, professor in the faculty of medicine's department of obstetrics and gynaecology, is receiving $825,367 from CIHR for CANCOVID-Preg, a surveillance study into maternal and infant outcomes among pregnant women with COVID-19. The nation-wide research will be conducted by teams working in provinces and territories across Canada, and will allow Canada to develop urgently needed, evidence-based recommendations for maternity and pediatric care providers, as well as pregnant women and their families. Researchers will also contribute data to international collaborations, allowing for a more comprehensive global understanding of COVID-19 in pregnancy.

Pinpointing the cause of COVID-19-related inflammatory surge

Dr. Alice Mui, associate professor in UBC's faculty of medicine and researcher at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, is receiving $150,072 from CIHR to investigate why some patients with COVID-19 experience a surge of inflammatory proteins, called a cytokine storm, that can contribute to the development of acute respiratory distress. Her team will investigate whether the SARS-Co-V2 virus blocks the function of an anti-inflammatory cytokine called interleukin-10 in the body. Her team will also assess whether a compound they have developed can mimic the action of this cytokine and reduce inflammation in patients infected with the COVID-19 virus.

Evaluating a potential drug therapy for COVID-19

A team led by Dr. Josef Penninger, professor in UBC's faculty of medicine, director of the Life Sciences Institute and the Canada 150 Research Chair in Functional Genetics at UBC, is receiving $578,090 from CIHR to support Phase 2 trials of a promising antiviral therapy. The trials will involve using doses of human recombinant soluble ACE2 (hrsACE2) as a decoy for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which enters human cells by attaching to the ACE2 receptor protein. This treatment could also protect organs including lung, heart, blood vessels and kidney from injury due to high doses of antiviral therapies such as remdesivir and chloroquine.

Using chemical compounds to reduce COVID-19 spread

David Perrin, professor in the department of chemistry at UBC, is receiving $167,056 from CIHR for his research into the development of non-toxic, drug-like products that can intercept the COVID virus and prevent it from entering cells. This product could potentially also be used as a preventive coating on medical devices, as a topical skin cream to reduce spread, and, potentially, orally.

Canadian drug trial on blood pressure and diabetes drugs for COVID-19

Dr. James Russell, professor in the UBC department of medicine, is receiving $3.5 million from CIHR for a multi-site randomized controlled trial (RCT) to study the safety and effectiveness of using losartan, a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure and diabetes, to lower COVID-19 mortality. Losartan is in a class of drug known as an ARBs, which have been shown to reduce viral load and lung injury in influenza pneumonia.

Addressing the dual public health crises of COVID-19 and overdose

A team led by Dr. Amanda Slaunwhite, senior scientist with the BC Centre for Disease Control and an adjunct professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC, is receiving $777,439 from CIHR and $75,000 from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. The researchers will assess the impact of the new risk-mitigation guidance that permits prescribing of pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply. Researchers will determine the effects of the pandemic and risk mitigation measures on COVID-19 infection, continuity of care for treatment of substance use disorders and non-fatal and fatal overdose in BC. The researchers will also identify barriers and facilitators to implementation from the perspectives of people who use substances, prescribers, harm reduction workers, and other providers and community members.

The team is led by principal investigators at UBC, the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) at the University of Victoria (Dr. Bernie Pauly and Dr. Karen Urbanoski) and Simon Fraser University (Dr. Bohdan Nosyk and Dr. Natt Hongdilokkul). The team includes co-investigators and collaborators from the First Nations Health Authority, Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, BC Centre on Substance Use, the BCCDC-based Compassion Inclusion and Engagement (CIE) (PEEP) peer network, Provincial Health Services Authority, BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors and Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Cedar Project: Culturally-safe, trauma-informed COVID-19 response among young Indigenous people who use drugs

A team of Indigenous and allied researchers governed by the Cedar Project Partnership and led by Patricia Spittal, professor in the UBC School of Population and Public Health, is receiving $549,258 from CIHR for a year-long study into the impacts of COVID-19 among Indigenous people who use drugs. Researchers will also roll out and test a bundle of virtual supports using an existing technology platform to mitigate and manage the impacts of COVID-19 on this population. The study will run as part of the Cedar Project, which, since 2003, has examined connections between impacts of colonization and intergenerational trauma on HIV and hepatitis C virus among young Indigenous people who use drugs in Vancouver and Prince George. The Cedar Project is one of the only research studies that continued operating during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, and will draw on its existing trust-based relationships with over 800 Indigenous people in both cities.

Designing drug treatments for COVID-19

A team led by Natalie Strynadka, professor of biochemistry in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, is receiving $403,065 from CIHR to lead research in the development of antiviral treatments for COVID-19 using molecular structure-based drug design. Working with professor Mark Paetzel at Simon Fraser University, professor David Baker at University of Washington and a long-time U.S. pharmaceutical partner, these researchers will assess and design drugs that inhibit processing enzymes active during viral reproduction, an approach that has been successfully used to develop antiviral treatments for HIV and other global viral infections.

Using Big Data and artificial intelligence to improve COVID-19 diagnosis

Dr. Teresa Tsang, cardiologist, director of the VGH and UBC Echo Lab and professor of medicine at UBC, is receiving $260,326 from CIHR to lead a multi-centre study that will use ultrasound imaging and Big Data to enhance the accuracy of COVID-19 diagnosis and patient prognostication. Researchers will use point-of-care heart-lung ultrasound imaging in addition to nasal swab testing, and collaborate with UBC engineering professor Purang Abolmaesumi to develop AI methods that will enhance the sensitivity of COVID-19 detection.

Protecting healthcare workers from COVID-19

A team led by Dr. Annalee Yassi, Canada Research Chair in Global Health and Capacity-Building in UBC's School of Population and Public Health, is receiving $410,256 from IDRC. Her team will work with collaborating organizations in Vancouver, B.C. and Guateng, South Africa, to analyze what works to protect healthcare workers in Canada and South Africa from COVID-19. They will also draw on survey research on the protection of healthcare workers in other countries to help inform international policy and practice on protecting healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19.

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