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News & Research

Taking on a Pandemic

U-M’s Research Enterprise Is in High Gear

BY MARGARETANN CROSS

Summer 2020
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New standards of care, diagnostic tests, innovative equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — as the nation’s largest public research university and home to one of the country’s top health systems, U-M quickly responded to the urgent need for answers, guidance, and clinical tools created by the pandemic. 

Faculty from across U-M schools and colleges continue to work at top speed to understand the coronavirus, test ways of preventing or treating COVID-19, and measure the pandemic’s effects on people and society. They are leveraging their expertise, national and international partnerships, and existing U-M resources to advance what we know and how we best respond to the global health crisis. 

Researchers have published more than 200 articles in medical and industry journals, offering clinical care guidelines for specific populations, risk reduction strategies, insights into biological targets, and more. As of mid-June, the university’s COVID-19 research index cataloged 285 projects across 10 categories, including clinical trials; diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics, and drug development; and stress and mental health during COVID-19. 

“These are indeed challenging times, but I am confident the generation of scientific knowledge across the University of Michigan will play a critical role as we work together to find solutions to this pandemic,” says Rebecca Cunningham, M.D. (Residency 1999), U-M vice president for research and professor of emergency medicine. 

While many laboratories across campus shut down in mid-March to slow the spread of the disease and are currently ramping back up, a committee was established to review, prioritize, and ensure the continuous safe pursuit of COVID-19 research. Hundreds of researchers were also able to work remotely, accessing data to study trends and develop critical insights across diseases. 

Key examples of impact include: 

Clinical care 

Patients seeking COVID-19 care at U-M hospitals and clinics have had access to clinical trials, and analyses of data and best practices from the care Michigan Medicine provides are fueling the development of guides for teams caring for COVID-19 patients at other hospitals. Clinical trials include a study assessing the efficacy and safety of the rheumatoid arthritis drug sarilumab for hospitalized patients with COVID-19 as well as a phase 3 randomized study to evaluate the safety and antiviral activity of remdesivir in participants with moderate or severe COVID-19. One of Michigan Medicine’s earliest efforts was to begin testing old drugs to treat a new disease. The U-M Center for Drug Repurposing is screening candidates from its library of thousands of existing drugs and experimental compounds with the help of artificial intelligence. 

Innovation and safety 

Partnerships between Medical School and College of Engineering faculty have led to several innovations, including a wearable, helmet-style negative pressure ventilation system that may spare patients from needing a mechanical ventilator (see “The Soldier’s Creed”). Researchers also quickly developed and produced a plexiglass panel that enables ophthalmologists to safely see patients in need of eye care. 

Discovery science 

COVID-19 research in basic science departments started quickly and never paused, including in microbiology and immunology as well as computational medicine and bioinformatics. In March, Michigan Medicine was part of an effort to leverage all existing human COVID-19 genome sequences to calculate the first common model that represented the shared sequences of the human COVID-19 strains. This provided important information for vaccine and antibody development. And by April, U-M researchers helped identify 332 protein-protein interactions connected to the disease as well as 66 druggable biological targets, including targets for 29 FDA approved drugs. Michigan Medicine also mobilized to create and validate more reliable COVID-19 antibody tests, study the transmissibility of asymptomatic disease, and explore the possibility of using specially designed nanoparticles to treat lung inflammation. 

Critical trends 

Researchers drew on global cancer and coronavirus data to create an app that assesses an individual’s risk from delaying cancer treatment; the app takes into account the patient’s characteristics as well as COVID-19’s impact on their local community. Faculty have addressed a dramatic reduction in emergency department visits since the start of the pandemic; discovered racial and gender disparities in heart transplant recipients with COVID-19; and found that fewer people have been admitted to stroke centers in Michigan and northwest Ohio, with even fewer receiving life-saving treatment for the most severe form of ischemic stroke.

This article was compiled using resources from Michigan Medicine Department of Communication and Office of Research as well as the U-M Office of the Vice President for Communications and Office of Research.