From Vaccine Research To A Ventilator Inventory, Here’s What Illinois Universities Are Doing To Combat The Coronavirus

Illinois university research
Sarah Rice, along with her husband Eric Landahl, an associate professor of physics at DePaul University, are using 3D printers to make face shields for health care workers at Illinois hospital and medical facilities. Courtesy of DePaul University
Illinois university research
Sarah Rice, along with her husband Eric Landahl, an associate professor of physics at DePaul University, are using 3D printers to make face shields for health care workers at Illinois hospital and medical facilities. Courtesy of DePaul University

From Vaccine Research To A Ventilator Inventory, Here’s What Illinois Universities Are Doing To Combat The Coronavirus

University dorms and classrooms in Illinois are now empty, but many research labs are active as doctors and scientists have shifted toward COVID-19 prevention efforts.

As many of us repeat Mr. Rogers’ famous advice to “look for the helpers,” here’s a snapshot of what Illinois institutions are doing to try to fight the novel coronavirus. WBEZ is keeping track of new research so check back regularly for updates.

University of Chicago: vaccine research

UChicago announced a new research initiative on April 23 to develop a COVID-19 vaccine through the university’s new Chicago Immunoengineering Innovation Center. The center was launched in February to take scientific research on the immune system and translate it into real world solutions for doctors to use to fight diseases, like cancer or autoimmune disorders. Now, they’ve shifted their work to the novel coronavirus. The center approved eight proposals to develop vaccines and treat respiratory side effects of the virus.

Scientists and engineers at UChicago also are working with partners nationally to share how to best reuse N95 face masks as hospitals face shortages. They’ve created a website where they’ve compiled the best information in one place and laid out the shortcomings and strengths of previous research.

In addition, UChicago and its affiliates at Argonne National Laboratory are tapping into their supercomputer resources to help researchers get information faster. Supercomputers are able to do tons of calculations in areas like epidemiology or bioinformatics — much faster than doing live experiments in a lab. During a pandemic, speed is paramount.

Doctors at UChicago are exploring if blood plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 could be used to treat people with severe symptoms of the disease. When someone is infected with a virus, their immune system produces antibodies to kill it. Transfusing plasma gives extremely sick patients an extra boost of those antibodies.

First, scientists want to see if it’s safe, and even possible, to do this with patients infected with COVID-19. “Later on, in the next stages, we’ll be able to assess if it has proven benefit over other therapies,” said Dr. Maria Lucia Madariaga, who is leading the trial, which was announced on April 13. It’s unclear how long this could take, but scientists say sick patients will receive the plasma from recovered patients as soon as possible. A similar trial conducted in China saw some success.

Northwestern University: ventilator inventory

During a crisis, it’s not always about new discoveries. It’s also crucial to have good information that’s easy to disseminate. Engineers at NU created an online tool that details ventilator inventory across the country, as well as when the need will be greatest in individual states and whether states have enough. It also looks at the same data for ICU beds. Plus, it estimates when each state will see peak demand for this kind of life-saving equipment.

Meanwhile, scientists are trying to create a material to place on a face mask that could act as a sanitizer, deactivating the virus on contact. This would be used by infected people and health care workers.They received a federal grant for this research.

Other scientists at Northwestern have developed a platform for scientists to develop an antibody therapy that can bind to parts of the coronavirus and stop it from infecting host cells. They’re using bacteria to produce this therapy, which is unusual.

“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, we have dedicated nearly all of our resources to producing an antiviral therapy to fight it,” researcher Michael Jewett said.

Northwestern is also one of a few sites in Chicago participating in a nationwide clinical drug trial to see how existing drugs combat COVID-19. The most well known is Remdesivir, a drug that was developed to treat Ebola. It’s been discovered to have antiviral activity that fights coronaviruses in animal models, including MERS and the virus that causes COVID-19.

University of Illinois system: social distancing models

The University of Illinois at Chicago is also participating in the Remdesivir trial, as well as a second drug trial looking at a drug called Sarilumab. That drug was developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The COVID-19 virus causes a sequence of events when it infects the body. Researchers are trying to see if this drug can stop that sequence from occurring.

Systemwide, researchers are helping state government officials make policy decisions to combat the virus. UIC is providing the Illinois Department of Health with infectious disease, emergency preparedness and public health expertise. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, researchers partnered with Rush University to develop models that show the benefits of social distancing and were key to Gov. JB Pritzker’s decision to enact a stay-at-home order.

Scientists at UIUC are also busy developing and packaging hand sanitizer on an industrial scale to address shortfalls. They’re also working on ways to sanitize and reuse personal protective equipment.

The most impressive development is in U of I’s Grainger College of Engineering, where researchers teamed up and developed an emergency ventilator prototype in less than a week.

They’re looking for a manufacturer to mass produce their prototype, called the Illinois RapdiVent, to address the expected surge of patients across the country.

Rush University: diagnosing COVID-19

Rush University is participating in a variety of clinical and non-clinical trials for treatment for COVID-19. They include the Remdesivir study, as well as a study of a way to treat COVID-19 patients who develop acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Researchers are also studying whether it’s possible to diagnose a patient with COVID-19 using an EKG, a machine that looks at heart activity. They hypothesize that since the new coronavirus causes heart rhythms early in the viral infection, an EKG might be able to screen for a case and predict its severity. Since testing has been limited and results can take days, scientists say an EKG test could possibly be created to use on a mobile phone and could identify patients more quickly.

DePaul University: printing face shields

Faculty and students at DePaul have contributed to the research and prevention work locally by using 3D printers to create face shields and plastic covers for N95 masks for hospitals across the state. It’s another way hospital workers can reuse face masks safely.

In order to maintain social distancing, university colleagues took the 3D printers home to produce the materials. They’re able to make between 1,500 and 2,000 face shields per week.

“That’s not even close to meeting current demands,” said Jay Margalus, faculty director of DePaul’s makerspaces and professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media. “Anything we can do will help, but DePaul can’t do it alone.”

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.