Supporting a rapid research response during the pandemic

Hospital-based research is uniquely positioned to tackle the unprecedented COVID-19 challenge and quickly translate results into illness prevention and care for patients. Lawson Health Research Institute, the research institute of London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, has awarded more than $202,000 to its research teams to support critical discoveries during the pandemic. 

Over 14 projects ranging from improved diagnostics to understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on frontline health-care workers have been funded through Lawson’s Internal Research Fund (IRF) COVID-19 Pandemic Response Competition. 

“Lawson researchers are an intrinsic part of health care in London. Our research community has mobilized quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic and has come forth with innovative ideas to prevent infections, aid recovery and reduce the likelihood of mortality in those most seriously affected,” says Dr. David Hill, Scientific Director for Lawson. “Lawson has reallocated internal granting resources to enable some of the most exciting and credible ideas to be explored.”

Launched in March, this rapid response competition was focused on funding projects, such as two described below, that could impact the management of the pandemic and enhance our understanding of the novel coronavirus. 

Using genetic therapy to block entry of the virus 

Progression of COVID-19 depends on human proteins that the virus uses to escort itself into lung cells to cause disease. “There are three such ‘virus entry’ proteins that are particularly important for infection. We see them as potential targets for drugs to prevent and treat COVID-19,” explains Dr. James Koropatnick, Lawson Scientist and Principal Investigator for one of the funded studies. 

There could be dangers in targeting these proteins, particularly for patients taking certain blood pressure-reducing drugs. The team is studying the safe use of a new type of drug – powerful “antisense” agents that block messenger RNAs which are the biological “blueprints” for the target virus entry proteins – to stop the virus from using those proteins to infect lung cells. They are testing two types of antisense molecules that reduce the amount of the virus entry proteins. “With our existing knowledge and infrastructure in place, this testing could rapidly lead to new, non-vaccine agents to prevent and treat COVID-19, as well as future coronaviruses with pandemic potential,” adds Dr. Koropatnick.  

The impact of the pandemic response for those with disabilities 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of Canadians, with worsening mental health as people adapt to different stressors. “While many are struggling with this new normal, the degree of disruption resulting from the pandemic presents unique challenges for those with spinal cord injury and brain injury,” says Dr. Eldon Loh, Lawson Associate Scientist also leading one of the funded studies.  
Relatively simple tasks such as frequent hand washing can be challenging for those with disability, and they may be more vulnerable to poor outcomes because of the decreased respiratory function many already face. The research team will document and evaluate the effect of the pandemic on the physical and mental health of those with spinal cord and brain injuries. “We plan to use our findings to provide guidance to those living with spinal cord and brain injury, and improve their quality of life during this challenging time. We expect that this study will not only help those with spinal cord and brain injuries, but also people living with other disabilities as well,” notes Dr. Loh. He is also a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Specialist at St. Joseph’s.  

The IRF competition is supported with funding from clinical departments at LHSC and St. Joseph’s, and from London Health Sciences Foundation and St. Joseph’s Health Care Foundation.

Congratulations to all of the researchers and their teams who have been awarded funding: 

  • Dr. Ian Ball - Predictors of clinical deterioration in hospitalized patients with COVID-19: The CORAL study
  • Dr. Doug Fraser - Translational Research Centre: Repository of biological specimens from patients
  • Dr. Sean Gill - Rapid identification of therapeutic targets mediating pulmonary microvascular endothelial cell dysfunction in COVID-19 patients
  • Dr. Marnin Heisel - Testing Online Meaning-Centered Men’s Groups to Promote Psychological Well-Being and Reduce Despair in the Face of the COVID-19 Pandemic
  • Dr. Kimia Honarmand - The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on frontline healthcare workers: A Southwest Ontario survey
  • Dr. Michael Knauer - Improving diagnostic and epidemiologic detection of SARS-CoV-2
  • Dr. Jim Koropatnick - Targeting the SARS-CoV-2 receptor with candidate antisense drugs to prevent infection and disease progression
  • Dr. Eldon Loh - COVID-19 and Disability: The Impact of a Societal Lockdown on those with Spinal Cord and Brain Injuries
  • Dr. Len Luyt - Stapled Peptides as SARS-CoV-2 Fusion Inhibitors
  • Dr. Claudio Martin - COVIDOPATHY – An observational study of coagulation abnormalities in patients with COVID-19
  • Dr. Tianqing Peng - Developing new ssDNA aptamers targeting S protein receptor binding domain of SARS-CoV-2 to disrupt virus infection cycle as a potential therapy
  • Dr. Eva Turley - Hyaluronan signaling through the inflammasome is a target for blunting acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in COVID-19 patients
  • Dr. Ruud Veldhuizen - Next generation exogenous surfactants for COVID-19 and future respiratory pandemics
  • Dr. Blayne Welk - Characterizing the burden of surgical care in COVID-19 positive patients