Breakthrough (College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics)

UH College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics Breakthrough (College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics)

NSM Researchers Making a Difference in the Fight Against COVID-19

Faculty Work to Detect and Protect Against the Virus

Now more than ever, the efforts of researchers worldwide are needed to find ways to detect and protect against COVID-19. UH and NSM are part of that effort.

Susceptibility to Poor Outcomes

Frank McKeon and Wa Xian (Biology & Biochemistry) in the Stem Cell Center are lead investigators collaborating with UT Medical Branch to investigate whether alterations they discovered in the stem cells of patients with chronic lung diseases, including high levels of the virus receptor, render these patients susceptible to poor outcome following COVID-19.

Preclinical Testing of Vaccine Candidates

Shaun Zhang (Biology & Biochemistry), director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors & Cell Signaling (CNRCS), is in the preclinical stage of testing vaccine candidates, which have been given to animals to evaluate the ability to generate neutralizing antibodies for COVID-19 protection.

Drug Screening Platform

Sanghyuk Chung (Biology & Biochemistry, CNRCS) is developing an innovative drug screening platform to identify and develop an anti-viral drug for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This cell-based high-throughput screening system will have advantages over the traditional in vitro enzyme assay-based systems. Hewlett-Packard donated a D300e BioPrinter to CNRCS and Chung to support this research. The donation includes supply cassettes and training, free of charge. UH is one of four research laboratories, and the only U.S. laboratory, to receive the printer donation from HP.

Mass Transit Studies

Aron Laszka (Computer Science) is working with Abhishek Dubey of Vanderbilt University on an NSF-funded project applying artificial intelligence to address how the essential public transit systems of Nashville and Chattanooga can maintain social distancing protocols and proactively plan bus routes and schedules in response to COVID-19. The project has two main goals: to analyze available bus occupancy data to allow passengers and drivers to maintain a healthy social distance and to understand the changes in overall demand for public transit in each city. The project also has a direct and immediate connection to the development of smart city technologies and can eventually be applied to other transit agencies across the country.

Mathematical Models of Spread

William Fitzgibbon and Jeff Morgan (Mathematics) are working with others on mathematical models of COVID spread. Results of their work, “Predicting the End Stage of the COVID 19 Epidemic in Brazil,” are posted as a pre-print on medRxiv. Working with Glenn Webb of Vanderbilt and Yixiang Wu of Middle Tennessee State University, the group developed a dynamic model of a COVID-19 epidemic as a system of differential equations. The model incorporates an asymptomatic infectious stage and a symptomatic infectious stage. They compare the model output to current epidemic data, and project forward in time possible end-stages of the epidemic in Brazil. The model emphasizes the importance of reducing asymptomatic infections in controlling the epidemic. The same group has another article in press with the Journal of Biological Systems.

Air Filters and Masks

Seamus Curran (Physics) developed a nanotech coating designed to allow air filters to capture airborne or aerosolized droplets of the virus that causes COVID-19. The coating works by capturing liquids which encase the virus particles while still allowing air to flow through unimpeded. That allows ventilation systems to remove the virus during normal operation, without retrofitting or limiting the system’s ability to draw fresh air. The coated filters are currently installed in one public building in New York City. They have been tested for static pressure suitability and rated positively. At the start of the pandemic, Curran also worked to use a hydrophobic coating he developed almost a decade ago to improve the ability of surgical masks to protect against transmission of the virus.

Zhifeng Ren (Physics), director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, and collaborators designed a “catch and kill” air filter that can trap the virus responsible for COVID-19, killing it instantly. Ren worked with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, and other researchers to design the filter, described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics. Tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8% of the novel SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was killed in a single pass through a filter made from commercially available nickel foam heated to 200 degrees Centigrade, or about 392 degrees Fahrenheit. It also killed 99.9% of the anthrax spores in testing at the national lab, which is run by UTMB. The filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools, and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Ventilator Made from Easily Available Components

Andrew Renshaw (Physics) was part of an international group of physicists and engineers who designed an FDA-approved ventilator that can be made from readily available components to facilitate rapid production. The international coalition, the Global Argon Dark Matter Collaboration, turned their attention from their studies of dark matter to design the ventilator. Renshaw is now working to ensure quality assurance of the controlling software and to connect the effort with U.S. manufacturers.