Three Teams Received Emerging Challenges Grants to Combat COVID-19

The UNC School of Medicine and NC TraCS awarded pilot funding to three teams for the 2020 Emerging Challenges in Biomedical Research Awards in a call highlighting research to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The School of Medicine Office of Research partnered with the NC Translational and Clinical Sciences (TraCS) Institute to provide funding to three teams as part of the 2020 Emerging Challenges in Biomedical Research (ECBR) Mechanism. ECBR awards are meant to provide pilot funding for early stage projects relevant to NIH priorities, and the Spring 2020 round was issued to support the efforts of School of Medicine faculty conducting critical research on COVID-19 to combat the current and future pandemics. Previous ECBR rounds have provided strategic SOM pilot support for Zika, Alzheimer’s Disease, Precision Healthcare, Innovative Basic Science and Vaping research.

“The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and the ensuing pandemic has changed life as we know it” said Blossom Damania, PhD, UNC School of Medicine Vice Dean for Research. “We are fortunate to have exceptional scientists in the School of Medicine who have the expertise to make groundbreaking strides in understanding the biology and pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19”.

The School of Medicine Office of Research is supporting three projects to address COVID-19, two of which were co-funded by NC TraCS, which also issued a parallel COVID-19 pilot funding mechanism.

The first project, co-funded by the School of Medicine Office of Research and NC TraCS, is led by Victoria Baxter, DVM, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Mark Heise, PhD, professor in the Departments of Genetics and Microbiology and Immunology. The team will evaluate the effects of prior pathogen exposure to SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis and host immunity to elucidate the factors affecting the varying susceptibility of individuals to COVID-19.

Nigel Mackman, PhD, FAHA, John C. Parker Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Associate Director for Basic Science for the Blood Research Center and Nigel Key, MB, ChB, FRBP, Harold R. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Director of the Blood Research Center, will use the funding support to lead a team of investigators to study plasma biomarkers to better understand the coagulopathy associated with COVID-19. This work could lead to life-saving anti-thrombotic interventions. This project was co-funded by NC TraCS.

Martina Gentzsch, PhD, associate professor of Cell Biology and Physiology is the Principal Investigator of the third funded project. Gentzsch and her team will find and characterize inhibitors of the SARS-CoV-2 Envelope protein, a viroporin channel protein that is important to viral pathogenesis, and provide important knowledge which could lead to the development of an effective COVID-19 therapeutic.

“We are confident that these projects will pave the way for future research and treatment options for SARS-CoV-2, demonstrating the outstanding expertise we have in our school” notes Damania. “We expect that these projects will have substantial impact on human health”.