Beatrice Jin
Beatrice Jin

A Boost for New COVID-19 Research

by J. Edward Anthony

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended routines at universities everywhere. Living rooms double as lecture halls. Staff meetings are held online. Family and pets provide unplanned cameos. Cornell faculty, students, and staff have demonstrated remarkable adaptability and creativity in the face of incredible challenges. The health crisis is motivating equally inspired, adaptive measures by Cornell researchers. As the pandemic alters the expected evolution of research agendas, researchers across disciplines are finding ways to contribute their expertise to the fight against COVID-19.

It’s no small feat to pivot from long-standing research projects and quickly bring a lab’s expertise and resources in line with new global priorities. Now Cornell researchers have extra help. The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI), in partnership with the Center for Vertebrate Genomics, the Center for Immunology, and the Office of Academic Integration, has initiated a funding mechanism that is designed to boost creative approaches to the pandemic.

The OVPRI SARS-CoV-2 Seed Grants are a challenge and call to arms for Cornell researchers who are eager to make their research and expertise relevant to COVID-19. “We all have family members who are suffering—and sometimes, sadly, dying—from this pandemic,” says Paula Cohen, Biomedical Sciences and Associate Vice Provost for Life Sciences. “One thing we can do is try to help on the scientific level.”

The overarching goals of the OVPRI Seed Grants are to find effective strategies to understand the fundamental biology of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, to combat the disease, and to reduce the burden on medical institutions and other establishments.

“We know there are going to be lots of funding opportunities to help fight this virus,” says Cohen. “The OVPRI Seed Grants will give Cornell researchers a chance to get new ideas off the ground and gather preliminary data, so the most promising projects can then secure extramural funding from federal agencies and other private and public sources.”

Tackling COVID-19 from Every Angle

Cornell researchers are already making strides against COVID-19. The Cornell faculty boasts world-class virologists, such as Diego Diel, Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, and Hector Aguilar-Carreno, Microbiology and Immunology. Cornell is also home to renowned coronavirus experts Susan Daniel, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Gary Whittaker, Microbiology and Immunology.

Daniel and Whittaker have been examining spike proteins of two related coronaviruses, MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and SARS-CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus). As COVID-19 grew into a global pandemic, Daniel and Whittaker expanded their study to include SARS-CoV-2. Coronaviruses rely on the spike protein on their surface to infiltrate healthy cells, and the new research by Daniel and Whittaker has already yielded important insights into the biology of SARS-CoV-2, including a promising target for antiviral treatments.

But scientists with research agendas directly related to the virus are not the only ones who have something to contribute during this global health crisis. “One thing that really excites me is that I’m seeing scientists in other areas of expertise who bring different approaches,” says Cohen. “They want to help. They want to figure out how to bring their areas of expertise to bear on this pandemic.”

Cohen mentions David Russell, Microbiology and Immunology, an expert in small molecule inhibitors. Russell had been using a small molecule screen to identify compounds that treat tuberculosis and HIV. “Now he’s applying that knowledge and that small molecule library to see if there’s anything that would combat this virus,” says Cohen.

Cohen is especially amazed by the determination and creativity of researchers who might not be your first picks for the fight with SARS-CoV-2. “We have people who are coming at this from a completely different perspective,” she says. “Cornell engineers are exploring mechanical and structural mechanisms that they could use to target the virus. Other people are thinking about how can they make rapid use of point-of-care testing.”

A Uniquely Cornell Contribution to a Global Effort

The OVPRI Seed Grant program gives priority to creative ideas that leverage the unique capabilities of a researcher’s lab, colleague network, and the Cornell research community at large.

“One of the things that sets Cornell apart is our ethos of collaboration—bringing together multidisciplinary research teams that can approach a challenge from different angles,” says Cohen. “I am already looking forward to seeing those projects that pull people together from different disciplines for a common purpose—where the sum is greater than the parts.”

The four entities behind the OVPRI SARS-CoV-2 Seed Grants are collaborating with the Cornell Center for Social Sciences (CCSS) and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, both of which are implementing similar seed grant programs. Together, the participating units are coordinating efforts to identify and cross-fund the strongest proposals. The emphasis is on collaborative teams that leverage a wide range of disciplinary approaches and utilize the state-of-the-art technologies that are available on the Cornell campus.

Recipients of the OVPRI Seed Grants will be considered for a second phase of funding based on their initial findings. “At first, we may fund more than we can continue to fund,” says Cohen. “But at least we give these creative ideas a shot, right? Because you never know. Then we will take those projects that really look promising, based on the initial results, and fund them further. Some projects may even accumulate enough preliminary data after the first phase to go for outside, extramural funding.”

“Every scientist who can is getting involved in this fight. We want to be part of that effort in a uniquely Cornell way.”

The OVPRI Seed Grants are meant to get researchers working on COVID-19-related research as quickly as possible. A multidisciplinary team of experts is reviewing applications on a rolling basis. “We expect to review every application and make a decision within two weeks,” says Cohen. “With preliminary data from the seed grants, researchers could be ready to apply for outside funding before the end of the summer.”

Taking the Lead

“The fantastic thing is that we are seeing the coalescence of a worldwide collaboration,” says Cohen. “Every scientist who can is getting involved in this fight. We want to be part of that effort in a uniquely Cornell way.”

“Cornell wants to be front and center in this battle,” Cohen adds. “We’ve always sought to get out in front on the most important issues and to take the lead on grand challenges. Whether it’s Cornell Atkinson working on sustainability, or our cancer initiatives, or our many other research endeavors. We are prepared to provide the institutional support and to prioritize what’s really important.”

“The payback isn’t just getting grant funding,” says Cohen. “Cornell has an opportunity to make a huge difference and be a recognized leader in this area. In the face of very daunting financial challenges, Cornell is committed to what’s really important and making unique contributions, doing what we do best.”