This past year has been a challenging one for most of us. The COVID-19 global pandemic has changed the way we live. We are working from home, our kids are learning online, we can’t gather with friends and family, we are wearing masks, we no longer attend in-person events. All of this change around us has profoundly affected us in many ways.
We asked our Promega colleagues how the pandemic changed their lives and how they adapted. How are they feeling? What keeps them going? What lessons have they learned? And what good has come out of it? Here’s what they said.
When Kasia Slipko started graduate school at Vienna University of Technology, Institute for Water Quality and Resource Management, she was interested in studying antibiotic resistant microbes in wastewater. For three years, she evaluated different wastewater treatment methods to find out how to remove antibiotic resistant bacteria. But in the spring of 2020, her research took an unexpected turn. That was when the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, caused by the rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Kasia soon found herself at the forefront of another exciting field: using wastewater to monitor viral disease outbreaks.
The fall of 2020 was like no other, especially for universities. The COVID-19 pandemic hit most of the world in the spring, forcing schools and businesses to close. For months, people worked from home and schools switched to online classes. When fall came, universities had a difficult decision to make. Do they have students and staff come back to campus for in-person classes? With students living together in close proximity in dormitories, an outbreak could quickly get out of hand. How can the university monitor and control the spread of the virus to ensure everyone’s safety?
This was when Robert Brooks started getting calls. He’s the Technical Director and Operations Manager at Microbac Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Microbac is a network of privately owned laboratories that provide testing services for food products, environmental samples and the life science industry. Robert has been in the lab industry for 25 years and has established a reputation for taking on difficult problems. “We really try to go that extra mile to help clients solve their issues. That has made a name for us out there. When people have odd-ball issues, they give us a call cause we’re going to take a look at it from a couple different viewpoints and take a step-by-step approach,” he says.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in early 2020, many scientists in the viral research community have shifted their focus to study the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Dr. Colleen Jonsson is one of them. She’s the Director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, and Director of the Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis.
Dr. Jonsson has been studying highly pathogenic human viruses for more than three decades. She has led several cross-institutional projects using high-throughput screens to discover small molecule antiviral compounds that could be used as therapeutics. And now, she’s using that experience to find an antiviral therapeutic against SARS-CoV-2.
Antibody tests are often used to determine whether individuals have been exposed to certain bacteria or viruses. For most existing antibody tests, the process goes something like this: A vial of blood is drawn from the individual, the vial is sent to a lab, then a trained technicians performs the antibody test and sends back the results. The current process is less than ideal for a few reasons. For one, blood draws are invasive and can be painful. Also, getting results could take days due to the time required to deliver and process the sample. Lastly, costs can be high, since the need for trained professionals and specialized instruments in laboratory settings adds to the cost of each test.
What if all you needed to do for an antibody test was apply a single drop of blood onto a thin piece of film, and you would get results on the spot within five minutes? Scientists have recently developed an antibody test based on bioluminescent technology that could make this a reality. They describe their findings in a recent study published in ACS Sensors.
There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 and the virus, SARS-CoV-2, that caused the pandemic and changed the way we live. But there are two things we do know about the disease: 1) Patients with diabetes and high blood glucose levels are more likely to develop severe COVID-19 symptoms with higher mortality. 2) Patients that experience an uncontrolled inflammatory response, called the cytokine storm, also develop more severe COVID-19 symptoms. The fact that both high glucose levels and an exaggerated immune response drive severe disease suggests that the two may be linked. But how? The answer may lie in the metabolism of immune cells in the lungs of COVID-19 patients, according to a recent study published in Cell Metabolism.
Most of us, after we flush the toilet, don’t think twice about our body waste. To us, it’s garbage. To epidemiologists, however, wastewater can provide valuable information about public health and help save lives.
History of Wastewater-Based Epidemiology
Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is the analysis of wastewater to monitor public health. The term first emerged in 2001, when a study proposed the idea of analyzing wastewater in sewage-treatment facilities to determine the collective usage of illegal drugs within a community. At the time, this idea to bridge environmental and social sciences seemed radical, but there were clear advantages. Monitoring wastewater is a nonintrusive and relatively inexpensive way to obtain real-time data that accurately reflects community-wide drug usage while ensuring the anonymity of individuals.
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have limited knowledge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and no effective treatment or vaccine. A major obstacle for scientists trying to understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the lack of appropriate cell models. Most of the studies published so far are based on cancer cell lines or animal models that have been engineered to express the human SARS viral entry receptor—ACE2. However, there are a many limitations to using these as models for studying human virus infection:
Marine animals are fascinating. Not only are their appearances alien-like (think tentacles, suckers and bioluminescence). But many have also developed unique capabilities unlike anything you see on land.
In fact, most of the biodiversity of the world lies beneath the ocean. According to the World Register of Marine Species, there are more than 400,000 marine species, and it is estimated that 91% of marine species have yet to be identified. Studying marine animals may help us learn more about how we evolved and even lead to new ways to study and treat human diseases. At the forefront of marine biology research is the Marine Biological Lab (MBL), located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
As the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, the race is on to produce antivirals and vaccines to treat and prevent COVID-19. One potential treatment is the use of human monoclonal antibodies, which are antibodies engineered to target and block specific antigens. A recent study by Wang, C. and colleagues published in Nature Communications showed that human monoclonal antibodies can be used to block SARS-CoV-2 from infecting cells.