Scientists and researchers at Penn School of Veterinary Medicine are leaving no stone unturned in the quest to beat COVID-19, as they pivot from their usual work to seeking groundbreaking solutions like effective vaccines and using canines to sniff out the virus. To help support their work, the Penn Vet COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund was created this month.
Several Penn Vet experts are changing their typical course of research during the COVID-19 crisis by studying animals to make a human impact, including biomedical professor, Dr. Andrew Vaughan. Over the past three years, his laboratory has been focusing on regenerative medicine, specifically lung repair and regeneration in relation to the flu in mouse models. Since there is not yet an effective treatment for COVID-19, a significant number of patients are dying from lung-related damage, known as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). In an effort to understand why, Dr. Vaughan is teaming up with Dr. Susan Weiss at the new Penn Center for Research on Coronavirus and Other Emerging Pathogens to find a way to prevent or lessen lung damage and boost new cell generation. Ever since a National Institute of Health (NIH) conference in November 2019 warned of an impending pandemic, Dr. Vaughan’s focus has switched to COVID-19. “There continues to be rationale to study the flu in relation to SARS-CoV-2,” he said. “It’s not all that different in terms of lung injury that these types of pathogens cause.”
A 2018 Lindback award winner for distinguished teaching, Dr. Ronald Harty, a microbiology professor in the Department of Pathobiology, is seeking clues that could help in the creation of a COVID-19 vaccine. His team is attempting to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaves cells and spreads to others—an action known as budding. Dr. Harty has spent his career studying RNA viruses—Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa fever. Building on this prior experience, his Penn Vet team will be looking at small molecule inhibitors in Ebola budding to see if those same inhibitors can be used against COVID-19.
This April, a brand-new pilot training program kicked off at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—utilizing scent detection dogs to discriminate between samples from COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative patients. The new research initiative led by Center director Dr. Cindy Otto, is partially funded through the COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund, with critical start-up support through a generous gift from Vernon and Shirley Hill, along with their Yorkshire Terrier, Sir Duffield. Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Otto’s research focused on studying and training canines to sniff out ovarian cancer in humans. Now, through a process known as odor imprinting, a new team of dogs will be exposed to COVID-19 positive saliva and urine samples in a laboratory setting. Once the dogs learn the odor, the investigators can document whether the dogs can discriminate between COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative samples, establishing the platform for testing to determine if the dogs can identify COVID-19 infected people. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center will join Dr. Otto’s team for the study.
For more information about supporting Penn Vet scientists and veterinarians who are advancing research on COVID-19, contact Wylie Thomas, Associate Vice President for Development, School and Center Programs.