Working amid laboratory shutdowns and strict COVID-19 protocols, the medical scientists on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus responded to a global pandemic in 2020 in groundbreaking fashion.
Rapidly joining an effort to understand and battle SARS-CoV-2, CU Anschutz researchers created an antibody test, advanced novel therapies, guided a state public-health response and launched a database that can accelerate discoveries in laboratories around the world.
And that’s just a fraction of the research community’s accomplishments during a time of need.
“We’ve gone through a tumultuous few months to be sure,” said Thomas Flaig, MD, who took the reins as vice chancellor for research just as the pandemic struck in March. But it brought the campus together in unprecedented ways, Flaig said, during the inaugural State of Research address on Dec. 8.
Thomas Flaig, MD
Campus takes a united stance
“I’ve seen a communal spirit of purpose and teamwork, perhaps in ways we haven’t seen before,” Flaig said. “If you look at the research work we are most proud of … it’s largely through significant collaborations.”
Before sharing highlights of the past year, Flaig noted the impossibility of highlighting everyone in the research community and beyond who has contributed to fulfilling the campus mission.
He did call out the Environmental Health & Safety team’s efforts in keeping the campus safe with screening, tracking and testing of community members, an endeavor that involved everyone on campus and was critical to sustaining the campus and research mission.
Collaborative biobank launched
One of the earlier concerted efforts, spearheaded by Flaig himself, was the creation of an institutional COVID-19 Biobank Specimen Repository. The collection of biological patient samples (RNA, blood, plasma, etc.) serves as a research library and was collected in collaboration with the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Streamlining the collection and distribution of samples via a biobank accelerates research while minimizing disruptions to patients. Over 3,500 unique patient samples have been distributed to investigators across campus.
Seeing that some scientists wanted to run the same tests on the same patient samples, Flaig then turned to Joaquin Espinosa, PhD, a noted Down syndrome researcher and the executive director of the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome, for help in creating a centralized location for the biospecimen datasets from both COVID-19 patients and control groups.
CU Anschutz Medical Campus Research: By the Numbers
5,000 research faculty
1,500 professional research assistants
300 postdoctoral researchers
2 million square feet of research space
2,000 clinical trials underway at any given time
5,000 sponsored projects in Fiscal Year 2020
Researchers expand reach with COVIDome
Knowing of Espinosa’s team’s highly lauded Human Trisome Project, a panomics study (the integration of complex datasets arising from molecular biology technologies) of people with Down syndrome, Flaig asked if Espinosa could concentrate the COVID-19 patient data for collective use.
Espinosa spearheaded the hugely collaborative effort, and the COVIDome was born. The database, open to all scientists, offers endless possibilities for rapid discovery of advancements in personalized COVID-19 medicine around the world.
A video highlighting some of the top researchers and other collaborative COVID-related projects on campus included:
- Angelo D’Alessandro, PhD, whose team studies small molecules and their interactions within the body (metabolomics). In a groundbreaking discovery, the scientists found that SARS-CoV-2 can damage red blood cells and thus affect oxygen transport.
- Elena Hsieh, MD, whose team conducted multiple assessments of COVID-19 patient samples to understand immune cellular changes in the context of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
- Ashley Frazer-Abel, PhD, whose lab was the final link in a massive campus-wide effort to create an antibody test that was supply-chain independent. The successful effort accelerated research for CU Anschutz scientists who then had access to their own test regardless of national supply demand.
- Rosemary Rochford, PhD, whose team developed a dried blood spot-based test so that people could collect their own blood for antibody tests without the need of a phlebotomist.
- Glen Mays, PhD, whose team studied communities around the world who were more resilient during the pandemic in terms of slowing the disease and its effects on their communities. The scientists linked strong medical, public health and social services networks with the best outcomes, helping to guide Colorado’s response.
- Adit Ginde, MD, whose research group has worked toward creating therapeutics for preventing serious COVID-19 and improving recovery for survivors.
- Thomas Campbell, MD, who directs clinical trials on campus for COVID-19 treatments, including Remdesivir and the Regeneron monoclonal antibodies that President Trump touted.
- Thomas “Tem” Morrison, PhD, whose lab rapidly established a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) COVID-19 laboratory to support research efforts on campus. The lab was critical in the creation of the campus antibody test as well as to several published papers and grant applications.
'A highlight of my career'
“To see a pandemic and be able to step forward and do something is really gratifying,” Frazer-Abel said in the video. “And I have to say this collaboration and the strength of it is probably going to forever be a highlight of my career.”
Flaig also highlighted a number of breakthrough research projects on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus unrelated to the priority-grabbing COVID-19 pandemic, displaying the depth and breadth of medical science on the campus. His entire presentation can be viewed in the video below.
Photo at top: (Left to right) Thomas “Tem” Morrison, Thomas Campbell, Adit Ginde, Elena Hsieh, Glen Mays, Ashley Frazer-Abel, Rosemary Rochford and Angelo D’Alessandro.