Immune System

UArizona Researchers Team Up to Address COVID-19 with the Help of TRIF and BIO5 Support

researchers in white lab coats examining a specimen
Research projects will address the pandemic from various angles, including public health, virology and drug discovery.

As of April 28, more than 6,500 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the state of Arizona. To address this burden on a local and global scale, thirteen UArizona teams have been awarded more than half a million dollars to explore virology, prevention and treatment, epidemiology, and psychology associated with COVID-19.

For nearly 20 years, the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) has enabled UArizona researchers to conduct high-impact work by building up the scientific expertise and specialized equipment capacity at UArizona that allows swift response to scientific crises such the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last four year cycle, projects in infectious disease, immune system, and respiratory function have been seeded with over $5.8M.

As a rapid response to the pandemic, TRIF resources were quickly used to establish a seed grant mechanism. Interdisciplinary teams of two or more researchers representing their individual colleges and the BIO5 Institute were encouraged to pitch basic science, technology, clinical or population-based research projects that directly addressed COVID-19.

Fifty-five teams submitted seed grant applications. Their proposals were judged on potential impact, teamwork and use of core facilities.

Thirteen successful applicants were awarded up to $60K each. Over the next six months, teams will quickly pivot their existing research and draw upon their unique skills to address wide-ranging aspects of the pandemic.

Team of researchers working together
Genetics, Evolution and the Viral Lifecycle

Representing the College of Medicine – Tucson, Samuel Campos, Scott Boitano and Ken Knox will study an evolutionarily adapted aspect of the novel coronavirus. By understanding the modification of a key viral structure, Campos, Boitano and Knox aim to provide insight on infection and disease spread. Data and knowledge generated from their work may inform potential prevention and treatment strategies.

team of researchers working together

Identifying Potential COVID-19 Therapeutics through Image-Based Screening
Curtis Thorne, assistant professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, and Koenraad Van Doorslaer, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will use image-based screening to identify compounds that prevent viral replication in lung cells. They’ll also develop a technique to study replication of the novel coronavirus and plan to share it with other UArizona researchers studying COVID-19.

Team of researcher working together

The Use of Copper in Preventing Viral Persistence
Not just a coating for pennies, copper has been shown to have a negative effect on the novel coronavirus. Virologist Van Doorslaer will also team Michael Johnson, assistant professor of immunobiology, to investigate the ability of copper compounds to prevent the infection and replication of a related coronavirus. If successful, the team will test successful compounds against the novel COVID-19 virus.

Team of researchers working together

Improving Efficacy and Minimizing Toxicity of Anti-Malarial Drugs Against COVID-19
Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, two anti-malarial drugs, have shown promise as COVID-19 treatments through clinical studies in France, Italy and China. However, researchers are concerned about the safety and effectiveness of these compounds. Jianqin Lu and Xinxin Ding of the College of Pharmacy will use nanotechnology to improve the delivery of these drugs. Through this method, they aim to enhance drug efficacy and minimize toxicity.
Team of Researchers working together
Boosting the Immune System to Combat COVID-19
Directly targeting the virus is just one strategy researchers can use to treat COVID-19. Because of the severe gap in knowledge regarding the novel coronavirus, some researchers propose that developing a virus-targeted approach may not be quickly achievable. Instead, Lu will team with Yin Chen to explore whether enhancing COVID-19 patients’ immune systems can treat their infections.

Team of researchers working together

Novel Compounds to Enhance Anti-COVID-19 Activity and Safety
Because clinical studies of anti-malarial drugs have provided uncertain evidence regarding their utility, a third pharmacy team will test novel inhibitors in treating existing infections. Wei Wang, Steffan Nawrocki and Jennifer Carew will use the anti-malarial drugs as the foundation for designing similar, yet distinct compounds. By doing so, these experts in drug discovery and viral biology aim to identify new compounds which may prove to be safer and more efficacious.

Team of researchers working together

A Local Patient Database to Study Local COVID-19 Impact
Researchers representing medicine, pharmacy and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health will collect COVID-19 patient data from BUMC-T inpatient and BUMC Family Medicine Clinics. With this information, Karen Lutrick, Dean Billheimer and Brian Erstad will create a local database to allow for a greater understanding of disease impact on our local health system. Further, this database will provide a useful tool for future COVID-19 UArizona research efforts.

Team of researchers working together
Creating Foundations to Understand COVID-19 in Arizona
A public health team will also create a database to better understand the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 in our area. Kristen Pogreba-Brown, Kate Ellingson, Pamela Garcia-Filion, Elizabeth Jacobs and Kacey Ernst will collect data from patient interviews to determine acute risk factors and disease symptoms. They will also initiate a long-term study to generate a database that can be used by all Arizona investigators addressing COVID-19.

Team of researchers working together

Characterization of Critically Ill COVID-19 Arizonan Patients
Because our current understanding of the disease is limited to emerging, highly variable case reports, a third team will produce a database with information on hospitalized COVID-19 patients in our state. Vignesh Subbian, assistant professor in the College of Engineering will work with Jarrod Moiser of COM-T to compile patient characteristics and document the safety of their care. Through their efforts, they aim to better understand the clinical characteristics and courses of seriously ill COVID-19 patients in Arizona.

Team of Researchers working together

Using Genetics to Study the Origin and Spread of COVID-19 in Southern Arizona
To date, only one viral genome has been recorded for Arizona COVID-19 cases. Michael Worobey and David Baltrus plan to add nearly 40 more genomes to GenBank, a repository curated by the National Institutes of Health. In addition to contributing data, the group seeks to understand the relationship of the Arizona outbreak to the national epidemic. By comparing viral genomes across the country, the group plans to determine origin of COVID-19 in Southern Arizona and the number of transmission chains in the area.

Team of researchers working together

Understanding Vulnerability to COVID-19
The novel coronavirus is highly infectious in older adults and those with pre-existing critical health conditions. The reasons for this vulnerability are currently unknown. Immunobiology department head Janko Nikolich- Žugich and associate professor Deepta Bhattacharya will work with Craig Weinkauf, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, to determine the links between these populations and COVID-19 susceptibility.

Team of researchers working together

COVID-19 Risk in Wastewater Treatment Facilities
In addition to traveling through droplets in the air generated by a sneeze or cough, the novel coronavirus passes through the feces of infected individuals. These live viruses can become airborne in wastewater treatment plants, posing a threat to facility workers. A team of five researchers – Luisa Ikner, Walter Betancourt, Jeff Prevatt, Kelly Reynolds and Ian Pepper – will study the risk of the airborne virus to facility worker health.


Team of researchers working together

COVID-19 and Brain Function
A hallmark of COVID-19 is the impairment of respiratory function. However, a fourteenth project will assess the cognitive impact of COVID-19. Funded by the Center for Innovation in Brain Science, Lee Ryan of the COS and Meredith Hay of the COM-T will utilize an existing database of over 50,000 individuals to understand brain-related impacts of the infection.


About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, biomedicine, pharmacy, basic science, and computational science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, promising new therapies, innovative diagnostics and devices, and improved food crops.
For more information: (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram | LinkedIn).

Aegis Consortium Funds Research Aimed At Reducing the Threat Of Future Pandemics

Dr Janko Nikolich
UArizona Health Sciences

The Aegis Consortium awarded seed funding to eight projects that align with the UArizona Health Sciences center’s mission to create a pandemic-free future.

College Of Medicine – Tucson Researchers Tackle Immune Rejection Of Biomedical Implants

College of Medicine -- Tucson
UArizona Health Sciences

Biomedical implants, such as breast implants and pacemakers, improve patient health and quality of life but may be rejected as foreign bodies. Suppressing production of an immune protein could reduce this risk.

Michael D.L. Johnson Named Inaugural Keating Family BIO5 Professor

Group of people standing together
The new distinguished professorship recognizes a BIO5 member with interdisciplinary research excellence and a commitment to mentorship.
Caroline Mosley, BIO5 Institute

Michael D. L. Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, is the inaugural Keating Family Endowed Professor for Interdisciplinary Research at the BIO5 Institute. 

“I’m honored to be recognized with this level of support from the Keating Family BIO5 Professorship.” said Johnson, a member of the BIO5 Institute. “It’s exciting to have the BIO5 Institute invest in projects that reinforce my efforts to be a good steward of science, both in and outside of the laboratory. This acknowledgement gives me the confidence and opportunity to continually build on my research and outreach ideas.”  

Created by BIO5 Institute director Jennifer Kehlet Barton and made possible by the Thomas W. Keating family, this award is given to a BIO5 member who exemplifies the characteristics of interdisciplinary biosciences research excellence, collegiality, spirit of mentorship and engagement, and strong communication skills.  

“Michael Johnson was an obvious choice to be the inaugural recipient. His interdisciplinary research is outstanding, and his impact goes even further,” said Barton. “He cares deeply for his lab, university and scientific community and has nurtured multiple programs to assure the opportunities and benefits of bioscience are available to all. He has an infectious optimism that inspires us to do better and be better.” 

A deserving recipient in research and mentorship 

Johnson leads an interdisciplinary research lab that highly values training and outreach at all levels, from aspiring college students to postdoctoral researchers. Alongside his research and training programs, he accepted the position of associate dean for basic science research and graduate studies at the UArizona College of Medicine — Tucson in August 2023. 

The Johnson lab studies Streptococcus pneumoniae — the bacteria responsible for pneumonia — and copper toxicity.  

As living organisms, bacteria need nutrients and metals when they infect a human host. However, too much metal such as copper can harm bacteria. By investigating why copper is toxic to bacteria and how bacteria interact with metals during infections, the Johnson lab works toward developing novel therapeutic strategies against deadly bacterial infections. 

Weaponizing copper against bacteria is especially critical as the misuse of antimicrobials creates drug-resistant pathogens. For example, a FY23 BIO5 Rapid Grant is helping Johnson and his collaborators develop a chemical compound with copper that could act as an antimicrobial agent.  

Along with his research, Johnson has developed various workforce development programs while at the University of Arizona. Two notable examples are the National Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP) and the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship. 

In the midst of the pandemic, Johnson and David Baltrus, associate professor in the School of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences and BIO5 member, built a summer research program that became the largest program of its kind to provide remote microbiology internships for underrepresented students with support from Jennifer Gardy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP) completed its fourth summer in 2023 of virtually matching undergraduate students with mentors around the world. With around 400 students supported through the program and upwards of 250 mentors, Johnson is thrilled to see the program continue to grow. 

“This program is not only developing research skills but changing science communication,” said Johnson. “These interns are working on real-world projects at their kitchen table and fostering scientific discussion with their friends and family.” 

Johnson also saw a need to support researchers further in their scientific journey. In collaboration with the BIO5 Institute leadership and staff, he developed the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship to better support outstanding early career researchers in 2019.  

Meant as a launchpad, the fellowship provides financial support and mentorship to postdoctoral fellows in the labs of BIO5 members. The year-long experience helps postdoctoral researchers learn the intricacies of grant and funding mechanisms to better ensure their long-term success. 

“We need to make sure that we support people from one step to the next in their scientific careers,” said Johnson. “To stay innovative, we need diverse mindsets and perspectives working on projects.” 

First BIO5 distinguished professorship 

Establishing a distinguished professorship at the BIO5 Institute has long been a goal for Barton as a way of recognizing extraordinary faculty. With more than 350 BIO5 members across a wide variety of colleges at the UArizona, these researchers work together to advance the pace of scientific discovery while developing and commercializing new devices, diagnostics, and treatments.  

Beyond their research, BIO5 members embody the ability to communicate the positive impact of their work to the community, government, industry, students, and fellow researchers.   

Barton wanted to formally recognize and support a BIO5 member who best exemplifies these values every day, while also recognizing the transformative contributions of Thomas Keating and his family. 

Awarded for a one-year period starting July 1, 2023, the professorship is renewable for an additional one-year period upon review by the BIO5 Institute director. As a rotating professorship, future awardees will be chosen through a nomination and committee process. Associated funds can be used for exploring new research areas, purchasing equipment, and supporting students. 

“I’m not worried that I’ll run out of ideas, but I need the people to help me execute them,” said Johnson. He's excited to use the distinguished professorship to support his current program and students, and perhaps get some new ideas off the ground. 

Immunity Acquired From A Covid Infection Is As Protective As Vaccination Against Severe Illness And Death, Study Finds

Hand holding a Covid-19 test.
NBC News
BIO5 researcher, Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, joins the conversation about how the immunity generated from a COVID-19 infection was found to be “at least as high, if not higher” than that provided by two doses of an mRNA vaccine.