U of T researchers are responding to urgent call for rapid research into COVID-19

Across labs at the University of Toronto, and in our nine partners in the University Health Network, U of T researchers have responded to the urgent call to arrest the damage to Canadians’ health, economy and social and community ties inflicted by the COVID-19 virus.

Federal government funding is helping to drive research on treatments, vaccines and mitigation strategies. In addition, the University’s own Action Fund on COVID-19 is a $5-million initiative supporting research that will make early contributions to the fight against the virus.

Through the federal government’s $54.2-million investment in coronavirus research, U of T researchers are now working on strategies to prevent transmission, treat illness, and model the potential spread of the virus. Here are five key research projects in which U of T is a leader in the fight against COVID-19.

Reducing COVID-19’s length and severity: James Rini, professor in molecular genetics and biochemistry, is leading a project to reduce the severity and duration of the illness through the injection of antibodies. Boosting antibodies is central to another type of treatment that doctors are attempting: infusing blood plasma from recovered patients into those still affected. But synthetic antibodies of the type Dr. Rini’s team is developing may present fewer risks as their molecular content, efficacy and dosing regimen can be controlled. The antibodies will be engineered to block the protein that forms spikes on the virus's surface and that lock on to ACE2 (a protein) on the surface of human cells to gain entry. Coating viral particles with synthetic antibodies could prevent the spikes from binding to ACE2. Read more

Stopping the virus from replicating: Sachdev Sidhu, professor of molecular genetics, and collaborators at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Manitoba are applying protein engineering technology to identify therapeutics for COVID-19. Sidhu’s team’s goal is to find small molecules that can enter cells and stop the virus from replicating. This type of treatment will be necessary even after a vaccine is developed, Sidhu says, as vaccination on a mass scale will take time. There “are literally armies of medicinal chemists and various companies that could then optimize the molecule into a drug that can be given to humans,” Sidhu says. Read More

Preventing lung failure: An international team that includes researchers from Canada, China, Sweden and Spain is testing a drug that is based on scientists’ understanding of how the coronavirus damages lungs in SARS. Both SARS and the novel SARS-CoV-2 use the ACE2 receptor. The drug regimen the team is testing targets this receptor to prevent the virus from infecting cells and causing lung failure. Results in engineered human tissue have been promising and the results of a trial with patients in China will determine next steps. Read more

Preparing the health-care system: Public health professionals often want answers to three basic questions about epidemics: “When will it peak?”, “When will it end?” and “How big will it be?” Those are the questions David Fisman, professor of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and a team of epidemiologists, public health professionals, doctors and statisticians know must be answered in order to accurately inform the public and guide public health policy. Fisman has been vocal on the need to expand testing in Ontario and the team’s work is helping the public better understand how measures such as social distancing, and testing and tracing, can together help arrest the virus’s spread. Read More

Creating portable test kits: A team at U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy is improving the ability of governments to run fast and accurate tests for the COVID-19 virus, helping to contain outbreaks. A team led by Keith Pardee, Canada Research Chair in Synthetic Biology in Human Health, has the goal of providing 14,000 tests for COVID-19 using their newly designed a pop-up lab kit, which can be deployed in areas without adequate testing facilities. The portable testing kit contains multi-well plates about the size of two playing cards. Each plate has 384 wells that can run one test. The team has also developed a reader, called PLUM, to analyze the tests and display the result. Pardee has worked on a similar project during the Zika virus outbreak, building a portable testing technology that can be moved easily to areas without adequate testing facilities. Read More

(U of T has donated thousands of personal protective equipment items to frontline health-care workers while researchers are working to understand the virus and discover innovative treatments.)