Saunders is Drexel's senior vice provost for research and heads the Office of Research & Innovation.
By the time the pandemic reached Pennsylvania in early 2020, the novel coronavirus disease had already quarantined a large swath of China, swamped hospitals in Italy, and killed several Americans on the West Coast. The world knew almost nothing about how the virus functioned or how to fight it.
The scientific and medical community needed assistance, yesterday.
Fortunately, even before the pandemic, administrators in Drexel’s Office of Research & Innovation had considered forming a seed fund that could quickly dispense research dollars to faculty working on short-term, rapid turn-around projects related to urgent social problems.
With COVID-19 as a catalyst, the seed fund quickly turned into reality. A citywide lockdown went into effect on March 20, 2020, putting Philadelphia on hold, shuttering buildings and sending everyone home indefinitely, but Drexel researchers marched into action, pivoting toward projects to tackle the challenges of COVID-19.
“Faculty were already emailing us mid-March saying, ‘I’m working on this COVID-19 project, is there any funding?’ We saw that there was a real challenge that the research community was reacting to, so we thought, let’s do this as accurately and promptly as we can do it,” recalls Executive Vice Provost for Research and Innovation Aleister Saunders, who heads the Drexel Office of Research & Innovation.
Within days, the office announced the creation of the University’s COVID-19 Research & Innovation Collaborative. In partnership with Drexel’s Institutional Advancement arm, which raised $125,000 from trustees, the office assembled $175,000 to fund its first Rapid Response Research & Development Fund.
The fund was announced April 1. By the April 6 deadline, over 40 submissions were submitted.
Funds were soon awarded to 17 projects proposed by 35 faculty members (including some working on multiple projects) from nine different colleges and schools. The scope and size of the projects varied greatly, from creating personal protective equipment and diagnostic tests to developing therapeutics and vaccines, to studying the pandemic’s social, economic and mental health impacts.
“We were able to be nimble, which is sometimes challenging when you’re in a big bureaucratic institution,” says Director of Research Strategic Initiatives Gwynne Grasberger. “It was not just about getting the money quickly; the researchers also had to produce something quickly.”
A number of the projects have since grown in scope and gone on to attract additional external grants, just as the seed fund was intended to do. By the end of 2020, the projects had produced an additional $2 million in grants, six patent disclosures and some 30,000 pieces of personal protective equipment. Several more grants are pending.
The success of the rapid response approach inspired the Office of Research & Innovation to do it again. In June, as social justice protests erupted against the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, the office awarded $100,000 to faculty researchers working on topics related to race. The fund awarded 22 grants from 33 submissions to examine racial inequity, both on and off campus (see related story).
“This just reflects who we are at Drexel,” says Saunders. “We attract faculty, students and professional staff who want to address society’s most pressing challenges, and this year, we had unprecedented events in rapid succession. We were so inspired by that response that it made us think differently about how we do some of our business.”
A Next-Generation COVID Vaccine
The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are highly effective, but they have shortcomings. In addition to being difficult to store and schedule, it’s unknown whether they confer durable immunity to the elderly. Drexel researchers are working on a DNA vaccine and adjuvant to address those flaws.
Of the many, many questions raised by the novel coronavirus, two of the more common are how long do antibodies persist and why does the virus affect age groups differently?
The answers are still unclear, but professors Elias El Haddad and Michele Kutzler in the College of Medicine are trying to address those challenges through studies, trials and development of an adjuvanted DNA vaccine for human use.
As of now, the only approved DNA vaccines are for veterinary use, but many vaccines for humans are in development. They work by delivering an engineered genetic sequence into a host’s cells that instructs the cells to produce an antigen that elicits the body’s immune response.
In contrast with the mRNA vaccines created by Moderna and Pfizer, Kutzler and El Haddad’s adjuvant DNA vaccine could extend durability, and efficacy in the elderly. Their vaccine would be capable of being stored at room temperature and, in combination with their novel adjuvant, Adenosine deaminase-1 (ADA-1), it would require only one injection. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two immunizations scheduled weeks apart.
“Our vaccine is positioned in a way that if there is a second- and third-generation vaccine, we will be ready to improve on what is currently being deployed,” says Professor of Medicine El Haddad.
To better understand why COVID-19 affects some people more than others, Kutzler and El Haddad are studying the immune responses of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. They’re searching for a molecular structure to understand why some patients need longer care and have to be intubated and possibly die, and while others experience only mild symptoms and recover quickly. This will be used to inform on the mechanisms associated with the novel adjuvant ADA-1.
The researchers received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (called Immunophenotyping Assessment in a COVID-19 Cohort, or IMPACC) which will contribute to a national collection of data. They recruited about 100 patients at Tower Health’s Reading Hospital and Chestnut Hill Hospital and began observing their health while hospitalized and then for up to one year afterward, with a special focus on patients’ immune reaction and how it correlates with the early course of their infection.
“This is a very impactful project because…one of the challenges ahead will be to determine whether the antibodies [produced by the first approved COVID-19 vaccines] are durable,” says Associate Professor of Medicine Kutzler.
A DNA vaccine with adjuvant could be especially helpful for elderly populations. Age negatively influences the immune response and this has major implications for the ability of individuals to generate long-term antibodies in response to vaccines.
“It’s important to understand the protective host immune response, because then we can make better vaccines that target those immune responses.”
“We know that people 65 and older are getting the worst of the COVID-19 infection in terms of severity and in terms of death, and while there’s some anecdotal data, there’s no real evidence whether the elderly respond positively to the vaccine and how durable their response will be,” says El Haddad. “We also know that the vaccines that are currently available did limited studies in the elderly. Thus researchers think there’s a big gap that needs to be addressed.”
Primary data suggests that their vaccine combined with the ADA-1 adjuvant can boost immune responses in preclinical aging models.
“That NIH IMPACC study is important for vaccines because Dr. El Haddad and his team are going to look at underlying immune correlates of protection: Why some people recover, and some don’t. It’s important to understand the protective host immune response, because then we can make better vaccines that target those immune responses,” Kutzler says.
Their project is both a testament to Drexel’s swift response to opportunity and a reflection of the University’s interdisciplinary expertise. The pair teamed up with two other Drexel projects that also received Rapid Response Research and Development funding. Irwin Chaiken, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology in the College of Medicine, is evaluating how strongly the antibodies produced by their vaccine bind to the coronavirus. College of Medicine associate professors Sonia Navas-Martin and Julio Martin-Garcia are testing whether the antibodies can prevent the virus from infecting lung tissue, using an organoid chip that replicates a human lung outside of the body.
In December, Kutzler and El Haddad were part of a group that applied for another grant, which is still pending, to extend their study to 300 individuals, in collaboration with Tower Health and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, which Drexel co-owns with Tower Health, and with Drexel’s College of Medicine and Dornsife School of Public Health. Part of their grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is to establish a STEM pipeline with Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, an historically Black university. They’ll be building a pathway for underrepresented minority students to enter the biomedical sciences, as well as opportunities for underrepresented minority faculty. (In addition, throughout the pandemic, their lab served as a training ground for medical and graduate students when most of the University was shut down.)
All of these developments began with a modest seed grant of $10,000 from Drexel’s Rapid Response Research & Development Fund. The grant enabled El Haddad and Kutzler to generate preliminary data that tested ADA-1 as an adjuvant for a COVID DNA vaccine in preclinical aging models that they used to secure more collaborations and grants, including the largest grant awarded ($1 million) from the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
For Kutzler and El Haddad, working together for so long on a variety of projects is nothing new. For years, they’ve conducted research to develop vaccines and study immune responses to infections for diseases like HIV and Clostridium difficile.
“What’s really unique about our work is that we can pivot our research pretty quickly to meet the needs of new emerging infectious diseases,” says Kutzler.
The ABCDs of PPE
Drexel engineers designed an acrylic chamber to keep medical professionals safe from contagious aerosols while COVID-19 patients are undergoing intubation.
We now know what was at first only suspected: that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is spread primarily through aerosols dispersed into the air through breathing and talking.
But even before the aerosol theory was widely accepted, an ears-nose-and-throat specialist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania had concerns. As more patients were being intubated and placed on ventilators, Michael A. Kohanski, a hospital otorhinolaryngologist and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asked Drexel’s College of Engineering Dean Sharon Walker to engineer a device to protect frontline medical workers while they are inserting a tube into a patient’s airway to help the patient breathe.
Immediately, Walker began brainstorming with faculty in her college and colleagues across the country.
Ultimately, Drexel experts from the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems and the College of Engineering created prototypes that were tested and fine-tuned in collaboration with Kohanski and his colleagues in the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
The team started with a device that resembled a soft, foldable tent inspired by the rain cover of a baby carriage, placed around a patient’s head. When the medical professionals asked for something more durable and easier to clean, the engineers moved on to a hard-shelled device with plexiglass and a stronger frame.
There needed to be openings for doctors to reach in for intubation, and to insert different tubing and vacuum pumps to suction out the aerosols…but there couldn’t be too much airflow, and the pumps had to fit into the hospital room’s existing infrastructure and work with available equipment. It couldn’t be too confining, because that may upset a patient waking from anesthesia or render the patient inaccessible to the doctor in the event of an emergency. Plus, it needed to be transparent.
“It was a fascinating time to work together and have these ‘team science’ and ‘team design’ meetings, and there’s been such a flurry of activity,” recalls Walker. “These physicians were in the trenches, treating patients during a pandemic, and we were still able to meet with all different types of specialists from different parts of Penn Medicine as our ideas were refined and the prototypes evolved.”
The final design evolved from a contraption devised from a shower curtain liner someone had at home, to a plexiglass casing produced by an external manufacturing company.
A name was chosen: Aerosol Biocontainment Device, or “ABCD” for short. It’s considered personal protective equipment (PPE) because it ultimately protects the medical personnel more than the patient.
“It’s basically a big plexiglass box that fits over a patient’s shoulders with disposable plastic sheeting that goes from the face down, which can be taped down and quickly removed in a real emergency,” Walker says.
The prototypes were tested both in the hospital setting as well as in the lab of College of Engineering professor Michael Waring. He and Assistant Professor L. James Lo, both experts in aerosols, airflow and air ventilation, tested the device on mannequins in special sealed chambers. They measured the aerosols in fluctuating flow rates, pumps and other variables in different operating scenarios, and found the device achieved a 95+ percent reduction in aerosols that approached almost 100 percent as a function of pumping speed.
There are endless opportunities for the ABCD device to be used in different applications: in clinical settings, rather than just surgeries; dental procedures, in addition to medical ones; and in domestic military use such as National Guard activations. And with endless opportunities come the possibility of licensing the device, protecting the intellectual property and publishing papers.
“There are lots of possibilities of modifying the device for different uses,” says Walker. “I imagine this is a research team that will work for years together.”
face shields for the frontlines
In response to a global shortage of protective gear, an interdisciplinary team built and donated tens of thousands of Drexel-designed, reusable face shields to frontline workers.
An urgent call went out from Einstein Healthcare Network, Penn Medicine and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in spring 2020. The pandemic had arrived, a surge of hospitalizations was imminent, and there was a critical shortage of face shields in Philadelphia and worldwide.
The Philadelphia-area hospitals contacted Professor Michelle Marcolongo, who was at that time the head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in Drexel’s College of Engineering, asking for immediate assistance.
Within days, Marcolongo teamed up with School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems Associate Professor Amy Throckmorton, College of Computing & Informatics Professor Ellen Bass and recent Drexel biomedical engineering graduate Bryan Ferrick to create a cross-campus collaborative effort to build and donate thousands of face shields.
They mobilized a network of citizen partners using 3D printers at home and high-volume injection molding manufacturers, and everything in between. Faculty, professional staff and students from half a dozen of Drexel’s academic units worked with Drexel’s Office of Research & Innovation and the Drexel Machine Shop to build face shields, dubbed “Drexel AJFlex Face Shields,” in the University’s Innovation Studio.
“There was fear of a PPE shortage and knowing we had the excellent eye and face protection with the Drexel shields made us all feel safer.”
The team delivered their first batch of 90 face shields to Einstein Healthcare Network, Penn Medicine and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children on April 3, 2020.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, when we were all terrified, [they] provided protection for us,” recalls St. Christopher’s Associate Medical Director, Population Health and Value Danielle Casher, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the College of Medicine. “There was fear of a PPE shortage and knowing we had the excellent eye and face protection with the Drexel shields made us all feel safer.”
By the end of 2020, the team had built over 32,000 reusable Drexel face shields and donated over 30,000 to more than 100 hospitals, government and local agencies, nursing and rehabilitation facilities, and nonprofits all over the country. Additionallly, when rising infections threatened India in early 2021, the team began shipping thousands of face shields to support hospitals there.
“We can overcome any challenge when we come together as a community,” says Throckmorton. “It is an honor and a privilege to contribute.”
Who to Call for #COVIDCALLS
A series of daily recordings created in the early days of the pandemic by a Drexel historian will endure as a real-time oral history of the disaster.
Scott Knowles’ first thought when the pandemic arrived was to do what he always does as a disaster historian: call up experts to find out more. After all, it’s what he did after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina as the head of Drexel’s Department of History.
His second thought, though, was to do something completely new: broadcast his calls to the public and archive them for posterity.
On March 16, Knowles began hosting live discussions, referred to as #COVIDCalls, every weekday at 5 p.m. with historians, journalists, scholars, researchers and other experts and professionals who could shed some light on the pandemic. Topics ranged from emergency preparedness, virus testing, grief, crime rates, rural health, past pandemics and disaster response, just to name a few.
Knowles, who left Drexel in January 2021 to join the faculty of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, wanted to paint a picture of what was happening not only in America, but around the world, where other experts were watching the crisis unfold in their home countries.
“Part of my research is about communication in disaster, so I’m literally doing that work in real time,” said Knowles at the time. Knowles is the author of the 2011 book, “The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.”
Along the way, this has been a once-in-a-lifetime chance to promote his field. “We do not have great capacity in the United States for multi-disciplinary disaster research, but I want to show that there is a community that can come together, and when their voices get together, it’s pretty powerful,” says Knowles. “I’d like to see something like a Union of Concerned Scientists, but for disaster. Can I do that with a daily one-hour webinar? No. But can we use this as an opportunity to build a stronger community of researchers? Absolutely!”
A Unique Sensor for Detecting Coronavirus
A novel way of testing for the coronavirus involves a piezoelectric sensor that has already been successfully deployed to detect breast tumors.
A husband-and-wife team at Drexel believes that a piezoelectric sensor they developed in their lab can be used to detect SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Professor Wan Y. Shih in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems and Professor Wei-Heng Shih in the College of Engineering are co-inventors of a piezoelectric sensor that is already being used successfully worldwide to detect breast tumors. Piezoelectric refers to the ability of certain materials to generate an electrical charge when pressure is applied. The technology has already proven itself commercially under the label iBreastExam.
For their newest application of piezoelectric detection, they have coated a very thin piezoelectric sensor with probe RNA complementary to the RNA of the coronavirus. They expect that when the viral RNA binds to the probe RNA, the resonance frequency of the sensor will shift, indicating a positive infection.
Their diagnostic promises to be portable, inexpensive and easy to use, says Wan Shih. “The test takes only 30 minutes from nasal swabs or saliva samples,” she says. “It is ideal to be made widely available at point of care.” — Sonja Sherwood
Health Checks on Your Phone
An app built by Drexel has become the go-to method for Dragons to track symptoms and schedule and receive results from on-campus COVID-19 testing.
The idea of using phone apps to track COVID-19 infections may make Americans uneasy, but there’s no question that tracking technology helped quell early initial outbreaks in China, Singapore and South Korea.
Here in the United States, Apple and Google developed an operating system-based cell phone beacon to automatically identify and log exposures to nearby cell phone users for instantaneous and anonymous contact tracing. But before that had been released to the public, the Drexel Health Checker App was already up and running, available in Apple’s App Store. The app has been an essential player in the University’s COVID-19 response since April 2020.
The app, designed to raise situational awareness of COVID-19, was developed by a team of collaborators led by Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean of the College of Medicine and Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs Charles B. Cairns.
The Drexel Health Tracker allows University faculty, staff and students to monitor their symptoms and receive urgent health alerts from the city and the University. Dragons use the app to follow how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is being transmitted over time and across locations.
When students returned to campus in winter 2021, the app was augmented with a HIPAA-protected medical portal to deliver test results to those who used it to schedule a test on campus — just like you would get from your doctor when you go on a portal. A Web-based version of the app was also created for visitors to campus to log their symptoms. When vaccines became available, the app became a way to confirm vaccination, too.
What’s next? The developers see the app eventually being adopted and customized by other academic and medical institutions.
The Rest of the Best
More Drexel projects that received the University’s Rapid Response and Research and Development funding….
The College of Nursing and Health Professions’ Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, Kymberlee Montgomery and Gloria Gonzalez-Kruger and the College of Medicine’s Michael Weingarten examined how providers and older adults perceived the pandemic’s toll on physical and mental health as well as telehealth care delivery.
The College of Medicine’s David Bennett and Barbara Schindler and College of Computing & Informatics’ Christopher C. Yang and Ou (Stella) Liang developed an online peer support community for women in treatment for substance use disorders who may feel vulnerable and isolated during COVID-19 sheltering.
The Dornsife School of Public Health’s Neal Goldstein and Igor Burstyn advanced methods for more accurately quantifying COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia when relying upon surveillance data collected by the health department.
The Dornsife School of Public Health’s Jennifer Taylor and Andrea Davis and the LeBow College of Business’ Christian Resick looked at how the pandemic affected first responders in fire departments, with preliminary findings showing increased burnout, anxiety and depression, and decreased job satisfaction and work engagement.
The Dornsife School of Public Health’s Allison Groves looked at the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on low-income and minority communities.
The Dornsife School of Public Health’s Amy Carroll-Scott and Félice Lê-Scherban created an interactive online dashboard to track which areas of Philadelphia would be the most vulnerable to health, social and economic impacts of the pandemic or most likely to turn into COVID-19 hotspots, using maps and data for pre-COVID social, economic and health conditions.
The College of Medicine’s Simon Cocklin and Adel Rashad discovered a hit compound, or molecule that confirms activity in screening during early drug discovery, that inhibits the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ entry into a host cell — the first step in infection. They aim to develop an antiviral drug to supplement vaccine efforts as a pre-exposure prophylactic to reduce transmission and treat those already infected.