Research Matters

By Terry Magnuson, June 1, 2020

Carolinaʼs researchers are on the frontline of COVID-19 research. They are working within teams on campus and partners from around the world. Recognizing our contributions toward mitigating the pandemic, Microsoft Analytics recently ranked UNC-CH as the number-one university in the U.S. researching coronavirus.

Some examples of the work ongoing at Carolina include Melissa Miller and Aravinda de Silvaʼs development of high-quality, rapid COVID-19 tests that are FDA approved. UNC investigators are also establishing a virus surveillance system to monitor the genetic evolution of viruses circulating in the human population. This will allow for adjustments to tests as the virus potentially mutates, will provide ongoing information about the mutation that is prevalent in North Carolina, and will help track the virus spread. Dirk Dittmer, for example, has sequenced 140 SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes isolated from patients, some of which have mutations that do alter viral proteins. He is tracking the strains circulating in North Carolina to ensure our diagnostic tests are accurate and to provide information for future vaccine-based approaches.

Rachel Noble of UNCʼs Institute of Marine Sciences is using a new testing tool for assessment of the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, septic systems, and package treatment systems. This work is helping to manage the contamination risk associated with sewage spills and flooding events, for example, with hurricanes.

Ralph Baric of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is collaborating with Richard Boucher of the Marsico Lung Institute and William Fisher of the School of Medicine to identify target cells of the respiratory system that initiate and amplify infection and then bring treatments into clinical trials. Ralph is also working with Jenny Ting on vaccines for SARS-CoV-2.

Alexander Tropsha and his colleagues in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy are leading a computational approach on drug discovery for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These modeling efforts will collapse the time-to-discovery window to identify existing approved medicines.

As a pathway to FDA approved treatment, the School of Medicine has initiated clinical trials to treat COVID-19 patients at UNC Hospitals. One important trial that is ongoing is the convalescent plasma trial being led by Luther Bartelt and David Margolis. Using antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19, they are treating patients currently in the ICU and the hospital. Several patients have fully recovered and have been subsequently discharged from the hospital. More previously infected individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 are being sought to donate their blood to continue this trial and save the lives of fellow North Carolinians.

Projects from the College of Arts & Sciences include Kia Caldwellʼs work on how the health care systems of the U.S. and Brazil have responded to the pandemic and the countriesʼ challenges in providing services to African American and Afro-Brazilian communities. Benjamin Meier is focusing on the intersection of international law, public policy, and global health, examining global health policy during a pandemic. Michael Emch specializes in disease ecology, more specifically how human interaction and environment impact the spread of viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Jonathan Williams is parsing through data regarding how broadband usage patterns between different demographics have shifted since the pandemic. He wants to understand how the online shifts in work and education have impacted income and education inequality.

Because of Carolinaʼs outstanding research on COVID-19, the State of North Carolina recently awarded UNC $29 million through the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory in four areas of coronavirus work:

  1. rapid development of neutralizing antibodies for SARS-CoV-2,
  2. safe and effective vaccine to the public,
  3. community testing initiatives, and
  4. other research activities related to monitoring, assessing, and addressing the public health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research is working with the various schools and the College of Arts & Sciences to identify projects in these four areas to recommend to the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory for funding consideration.

These are just a few examples of the many Carolina COVID-19-related research projects that span areas from basic science to bedside to community recovery. I will continue to report on the advances in COVID-19 research at Carolina in future posts.

Permalink: Continuing to Accelerate COVID-19 Research

By Terry Magnuson, May 6, 2020

I have never seen an end to an academic semester quite like this one. While we unfortunately will not be celebrating in our traditional ways, I am exceedingly proud of what we have accomplished over these last few months. UNC researchers have led the charge in responding to the pandemic crisis by developing tests and therapies, understanding coronavirus biology and epidemiology, and studying health outcomes and impacts on society from all angles.

Ralph Baric of the Gillings School of Global Public Health is one the world’s leading experts on coronaviruses and therapies for treating and curing them. He and a team of diverse researchers are discovering and testing therapies for the disease and pioneering strategies that will combat the spread of the virus. Just last week, the FDA announced that one of the treatments Baric and his team have worked on shortened recovery time for COVID-19 patients, and that was on the heels of encouraging preclinical results of another therapy.

Several researchers from the Marsico Lung Institute have been working as a team to map the entry sites for SARS-CoV-2 in the respiratory tract and are exploring the risk/benefit aspects of drugs commonly used to treat respiratory disease for COVID-19. Clinical microbiology experts at the UNC Medical Center and School of Medicine developed a coronavirus diagnostic test that is now being used to test for COVID-19 among UNC Health patients. And READDI, a new nonprofit recently launched at UNC, is creating self-stable antiviral therapeutics for the virus families that cause the majority of the world’s epidemics, allowing for rapid development of antiviral treatments for future diseases.

These are but a few of the many examples of how our colleagues have nimbly and quickly responded to the novel coronavirus crisis. Carolina’s deep strengths in virology, epidemiology, pharmacology, biology, and other health sciences positioned us to do so. And our social scientists are hard at work identifying the societal, psychological, and cultural impacts social distancing and other unique policies will have on everyday life.

I encourage you to read more about the promising work our researchers are conducting across all fields on our special COVID-19 coverage website. If you have questions on how research operations have been affected during this time, you can find most answers on our resources for researchers page. And finally, if you’d like to help financially support UNC’s fight against COVID-19, you can contribute to the UNC COVID-19 Research Accelerator Fund.

Soon we will be sharing plans for resuming research operations in a methodical way that ensures the safety of our workforce. In the meantime, thank you to the research community for all that you do and continue to do. Stay safe.

Permalink: UNC-Chapel Hill is a global epicenter for research on coronavirus and COVID-19

By Terry Magnuson, February 13, 2020

As our research enterprise grows, new methods and modes of communication are required to meet the needs of investigators, scholars, scientists, research administrators, and all other parties who contribute to the success of our world-class portfolio. To that end, it is my pleasure to provide background on two new opportunities to receive information from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR). We hope that your engagement with these sources, as well as with the existing ones, is beneficial to you. Please see below for more information on each.

  • In my blog, Research Matters, I cover topical areas of interest to the research community. I share my perspective not only as the vice chancellor for research but as a fellow researcher.
  • On March 5, our organization will launch a new e-newsletter called The Carolina Investigator. It will provide the research community with news, funding opportunities, administrative updates, federal and legislative updates, and upcoming events — pertinent information for scientists and scholars. Subscribe to The Carolina Investigator here.

In addition to these offerings, we will still be providing relevant, timely content in our existing newsletters:

  • Inside Research provides information of specific relevance for personnel within the OVCR, offering news and updates, informative profiles on programs and people within the organization, a calendar of events, and relevant stories from across campus. Email inside-research@unc.eduto subscribe.
  • Endeavors is UNC’s monthly digital research magazine. Through well-crafted stories and vibrant visuals, the magazine shares content from all disciplines, breaking down the complexities of research for a general audience. Whether you conduct or support research activity, I highly recommend subscribing to Endeavors so that you can see the fruits of your and your peers’ hard work. Email endeavors@unc.edu to subscribe.

I hope you will find the plethora of information we now offer helpful. My thanks to the Office of Research Communications for managing these outlets and responding to the needs of the research community.

Permalink: Reaching Out

By Terry Magnuson, January 21, 2020

Each year, the journal Science selects the most groundbreaking discoveries for its annual Breakthrough of the Year distinction. It is interesting, and encouraging, to see how closely the work of our researchers here at UNC align with the top choices for last year’s advancements in scientific discovery.

An evocative image of a black hole, generated by an international team of radio astronomers, revealing “a dark heart surrounded by a ring of light created by photons zipping around it,” was selected as the 2019 Breakthrough of the Year. The image was validation of decades of work surrounding a controversial theory about objects that cannot be seen. Black holes, time travel, and gravitational waves were also topics presented by Nobel laureate and 2019 Frey Foundation Distinguished Visiting Professor Kip Thorne when he visited our campus last February. The Frey Professorship is one of the highest honors bestowed on researchers by the College of Arts & Sciences to distinguished public leaders.

Although the image was the first choice of Science editors, it was the third choice of magazine readers who voted for the “People’s Choice” award. Top pick for readers was the identification of a fossilized jaw from China’s Tibetan Plateau as Denisovan, a mysterious human ancestor who ranged across Asia until some 50,000 years ago, about the same time as the Neanderthals.

The second choice of readers was advances in Ebola virus treatment. Treatments that significantly reduce death rates from the disease continued to make headway in 2019. Here at UNC, the Baric Lab has been involved in testing remdesivir, a new drug developed by Gilead Sciences, Inc. The lab provided evidence that the drug works to treat Ebola by blocking enzymes needed for virus replication. Additionally, William Fischer and David Wohl in the School of Medicine have been studying Ebola survivors in Liberia. They have established a cohort to learn more about treatment of the acute infection. They are also part of an ongoing NIH effort studying remdesivir in men who have evidence of Ebola virus in their semen. It is important to note that the FDA has approved remdesivir only for compassionate use thus far, but the Democratic Republic of Congo has cleared the use of the drug in a current outbreak affecting the country.

The fourth choice of Science readers was the first approval of an effective treatment for most cases of cystic fibrosis (CF). The treatment is a triple-drug combination called Trikafta, which corrects the effects of the most common mutation leading to the lung disease. About 90 percent of CF patients have the common mutation, and this treatment could convert CF from a progressive disease to a manageable chronic illness. UNC’s Cystic Fibrosis Center is one of the leading research and treatment centers in the world. The center is led by Ric Boucher, and it has the single goal of curing CF lung disease. It has also served as an important clinical trial site for Trikafta treatment results.

Researchers have the tools for building knowledge, facilitating learning, and impacting our understanding of nature and the well-being of our universe and our health. It is truly an exciting time for research within our university and across the globe.

Permalink: Carolina Research at the Cutting Edge

By Terry Magnuson, December 16, 2019

Carolina’s integrative and interdisciplinary research programs are consistently at the forefront of innovation and translation. The work our researchers are conducting on “genomes to biology” particularly exemplifies the call of UNC’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good.

For instance, the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center was one of 12 centers that participated in the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Genome Atlas program, the goal of which is to use high-throughput genomic techniques to identify genetic variants that correlate with specific cancer classifications. The data have had enormous impact on therapeutic approaches. The genomic variants are often correlative, though, and it is not known whether the genetic variants are causing the tumor or are a result of having the tumor. Discovering how gene variants translate into disease phenotypes such as cancer requires mechanistic understanding of biology.

Answering such questions is the Integrative Program for Biological & Genome Sciences (iBGS), created by Bob Duronio after he recognized the need to bridge genomic variants to biological processes. The mission of the iBGS program is to promote research into the mechanisms by which molecules and cells coordinate organism development and function using model systems and genomics approaches. The iBGS website highlights several commentaries and short editorials by international leaders articulating the need for model organisms to understand the biological mechanisms behind human genomic variation.

The acknowledgment that “genomes to biology” is at the forefront of biological and biomedical sciences has recently been highlighted in the journal Science and will be addressed in the February 2020 Functional Genomics Workshop, organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The purpose of the workshop is to discuss goals, strategies, and technical needs required to translate DNA variation into biology.

Permalink: Carolina Leads with “Genomes to Biology” Research