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USF Researchers Present Progress and Promise of COVID-19 Seed Grant Projects Less than a year into their research, several projects from the first round of USF's COVID-19 Rapid Response Seed Grant Program have advanced to create new technologies to detect and fight the virus, as well as insights into the impact of the pandemic in our communities.

In April 2020, as the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across Florida and the United States, USF Research & Innovation working with faculty members and college and department leadership to launch a first-of-its kind funding effort to jump start research into the disease and its impact.

The USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program initially selected 14 projects and supported them with a total of $340,000. Two other funding rounds followed in the months after, bringing the university's investment in COVID-19 research projects to more than $1 million, with support also coming from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council. The effort produced swift impact: 48 patent disclosures on COVID-19 fighting technologies emerged from the projects, while others went on to secure additional grant support and new corporate partners.

Recently, 10 teams from the first round of projects presented snapshots of their research eight months later, including what they learned in their initial findings and the next step for developing their projects.

“What we have seen here is a remarkable diversity of research and scholarship that we have been able to apply to the pandemic response. What we have accomplished in that year is really extraordinary,” said PRRN co-chair Professor Randy Larsen of USF’s Department of Chemistry.

“We were looking for very high-impact research on short timetables. The pandemic is in full force. We needed the research to be able to address the consequences of the pandemic.”

Learn more about the presentations in the stories below and follow all of the USF seed grants from the three rounds via USF's Pandemic Response Research Network.

Secure Mobile Contact Tracing App

PI: Jean-Francois Biasse. CO-PIs: Dr. Sriram Chellappan, Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Dr. Lynette Menezes, Assistant Vice President International, USF Health; Dr. Charurut Somboonwit, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Attila Yavuz, College of Engineering.

The research team led by USF Mathematics & Statistics Associate Professor Jean-Francois Biasse is working to create an automated system of contact tracing that would use the Bluetooth-LE signal of smartphones to pinpoint close contact after someone tests positive for COVID-19, but to do so with advanced cryptographics that preserve the privacy of all involved. In addition to being able to alert people who were in contact with someone who tested positive, the app would allow health officials to identify transmission hot spots - the places were people are interacting and lingering and spreading the virus.

From a technical standpoint, Biasse said building a prototype of an app was just one hurdle for the USF team, the bigger challenge would be in convincing people to opt into the system by downloading the app, even with its anonymous location information.

"It's a very tough sell for the adoption," he shared with the presentation audience. "Even though it works from a technical standpoint, you need to convince a very large segment of the population to use it. You have a psychological barrier.

"... Our alternative approach is to ask the people who test positive to download an app they use once, and it will dig into the location data for the past 14 days and upload it anonymously."

The Florida High Tech Corridor Council is also supporting the project.

Social Closeness Despite Social Distance: A Study of Strategies to Fight Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

PI: Dr. Fallon Goodman, Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences. Co-PIs: Dr. Getachew Dagne, College of Public Health; Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg, Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences; Dr. Brent Small, School of Aging Studies, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

Even before the pandemic forced shut downs, quarantines and social distancing, loneliness was an epidemic. A team led by USF Psychology Assistant Professor Fallon Goodman has been exploring how the pandemic has further fractured social support systems and how loneliness has been magnified among those with preexisting psychological vulnerabilities, such as depression and social anxiety.

The team conducted daily surveys with 310 adults with elevated depression and/or social anxiety symptoms over a period of two weeks. They found, surprisingly, that despite the lock down participants socialized at least once on most days, either in person, or interacting with people during video chats or on social media.

The team also found that different social experiences impacted loneliness: On days when participants socialized, they reported the highest loneliness when they felt closed off from others and the lowest loneliness when they felt they could “effortlessly be themselves” – or, in other words, had authentic interactions with another person.

“While socializing via virtual platforms appeared to have some benefit for loneliness, participants felt most socially connected on days when they interacted with others in person,” Goodman said.

“We cannot replace the social connection that takes place face-to-face.”

After completing daily surveys, participants received a personalized profile summarizing their reports, which helped them make modifications if they were feeling socially disconnected, the team said. The team’s soon-to-be published research has already been widely-shared among academic and mental health advocacy organizations. The team intends to further their work with federal funding support.

In this video interview with the HEART Initiative, Dr. Goodman shares insights on anxiety, emotion regulation, and well-being in the midst of COVID-19.

Serological Correlates to Immunity in SARS-CoV-2 Infection

PI: Dr. Kami Kim, Morsani College of Medicine. Co-PIs: Dr. John Adams, College of Public Health, Dr. Michael Teng, Morsani College of Medicine; and Dr. Thomas Unnasch, College of Public Health.

This project is exploring the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and potential immunity using a combination of tests to determine which best detects whether a person has developed immunity to the virus or not. The research is important to determine whom among the medical staff can return to work safely because they have developed defenses against the virus, and will allow researchers to recalculate a more accurate fatality rate among the general population.

The Florida High Tech Corridor Council also is supporting the project.

Planning for Hurricane Shelter Operations During a Pandemic

PI: Dr. Jennifer Marshall, College of Public Health. Co-PIs: Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, Instructor, College of Public Health; Dr. Kelsey Merlo, Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences; PhD student Blake Scott, College of Public Health; Michael Shekari, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. USF Students/Alumni: Kayla Jones, Megan Montoya, Melanie Cruz, Ahlam Farzan, Bess Smith, Madeleine LaGoy, Adriana Campos, Mitchell Jaskela, Katrina Conen, Sinjana Kolipaka, Amanda Rivera, Carson Bell. Collaborators from Old Dominion University: Dr. Wie Yusuf, Dr. Joshua Behr, Dr. Jennifer Whytlaw and Nicole Hutton.

The pandemic wasn’t the only crisis to strike in 2020 – it coincided with what would become the most active hurricane season on record. Months before the storms started to hit, the USF research team set out to re-examine hurricane shelter operations anticipating that the close confines and communal spaces would present unprecedented challenges in the midst of a pandemic.

Dr. Kelsey Merlo, an assistant professor in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology program, said the team conducted a gap analysis and worked with shelter managers to revamp procedures to minimize transmission points. The team also worked on public messaging on the precautions being taken to ease concerns.

“There was a lot of concern that people would be too scared to come to a shelter because fear of the pandemic was competing with fear of the hurricane,” she said.

The research team developed several tools used by shelter staff, like an assessment tool and a guide that relayed the current scientific literature on infection mitigation and control, as well as guidance from federal agencies and experts.

The team also found its help was needed when it came to the volunteers who are crucial for properly staffing shelters. Researchers found volunteers with personal health concerns were less likely to work during the pandemic, so the team developed a planning guide to help shelters put “the right people in the right spots,” she said.

Researchers also were able to put a spotlight on the greater needs of those who are the frontlines of both health and weather emergencies. They found shelter staff both fearful and exhausted from the pandemic and the storm season, so they created a workshop for the Tampa Bay Health and Medical Preparedness Coalition focusing on the psychological health needs of the disaster workforce.

“What we are finding is that changing work roles and level of Covid-19 community spread is leading to more burnout among our disaster workforce,” Merlo said.

The USF Rapid-Risk Assessment and Intervention for COVID-19

PI: Dr. Usha Menon, College of Nursing. Co-PIs: Dr. Ross Andel, School of Aging Studies, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences; Dr. Ponrathi Athilingam, College of Nursing; Dr. Andrew Bugajski, College of Nursing; Dr. Javier Cuevas, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Ellen Daley, College of Public Health; Dr. Elizabeth Jordan, College of Nursing; Dr. Stephanie Marhefka-Day, College of Public Health; Dr. Victoria Marshall, College of Nursing; Dr. Candice Mateja, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Lindsay Peterson, School of Aging Studies, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences; Dr. Stephanie M. Prescott, College of Nursing; Dr. Kaitlyn Rechenberg, College of Nursing; Dr. Sudeep Sarkar, College of Engineering; Dr. Kevin Sneed, Taneja College of Pharmacy; Dr. Laura Szalacha, College of Nursing; Dr. Tracey L. Taylor, College of Nursing; Dr. Kea Turner, Moffitt Cancer Center; Dr. Susan T. Vadaparampil, Moffit Cancer Center.

Before they came to USF in 2018 from the University of Arizona, College of Nursing Dean Usha Menon and Professor Laura Szalacha led the research team that developed TIMS© (Tailored Messaging Intervention System) to increase screening and risk assessment among patients for a variety of illnesses and health challenges. TIMS© provides respondents with personally adapted feedback about their health behaviors; and researchers have found that tailored messages are more likely to be remembered and viewed as relevant by recipients.

In their USF COVID-19 seed grant project, the research team adapted the system to the pandemic to gain insights into overall human health behavior and chart how people inundated with information about their health – some accurate and some not – might navigate these unprecedented times and keep themselves healthy.

The research team recruited 1,218 people - mostly Floridians and in keeping with the of the state’s population demographics – to participate in a real-time risk assessment and messaging system. A wide variety of disciplines including Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health, Aging, Computer Science, Education, Medicine, and the Moffitt Cancer Center contributed to developing a comprehensive library of tailored messages. Through a set of various prompts, participants shared with research scientists information about their daily habits amid the pandemic.

Participants received positive messages praising healthy habits; when answering questions that raised a concern about negative behaviors and unnecessary risk, they were directed to help. The goal, Dr. Szalacha said, is to create long-term improvements in public health through timely interventions.

The project will continue with nearly 357 participants agreeing to join their registry to be available for other health studies that will examine on-going health issues related to the pandemic.

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A Novel Therapy for High-Risk Critically Ill COVID-19 Patients

PI: Dr. Subhra Mohapatra, Morsani College of Medicine. Co-PIs: Dr. Shyam Mohapatra, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Alison Willing, Morsani College of Medicine.

This project focuses on repurposing the FDA-approved anti-diabetic drug pioglitazone as an adjunct therapy to mesenchymal (adult) stem cell therapy for treating COVID-19. Since coronaviruses are known to affect the brain stem respiratory center and have been implicated in inciting or enhancing several neurologic disorders in millions of Americans, many researchers have focused on the urgent need to find new treatment strategies targeting COVID-19 effects on the brain.

“COVID is not only confined to the lungs, but it also affects a lot of organs,” Molecular Medicine Professor Subhra Mohapatra said. “Thirty to 40 percent of the patients suffer from neurological symptoms, and it can also induce strokes or hemorrhages. We don’t have therapies for neurological issues.”

Dr. Mohapatra’s team has found that in addition to its anti-inflammatory activity, Pioglitazone has shown to decrease replication of certain RNA viruses and provides protection against these viruses including the COVID-19 virus.

Her team’s research also suggested that Leriglitazone, an intermediate product of Pioglitazone, binds to SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins similar to the parent drug. However, Leriglitazone crosses the blood-brain barrier to counteract inflammation of the brain when combined with stem cell therapy. While the project is exploring the basics of how these two drugs might work against the effects of a COVID-19 infection, there is evidence that supports continuing the research to develop better therapies for critically ill COVID-19 patients, the researchers said.

The COVID-19 research builds upon the Dr. Mohapatra team’s decade-long research on developing treatments for Traumatic Brain Injury with adult stem cells, where they found that the treatment was improved when the stem cells were paired with anti-inflammatory drugs.

Sniffing Out COVID-19: A Novel Nanofilm Detector System

PI: Dr. Salvatore Morgera, College of Engineering. Co-PIs: PhD student Tiffany Miller, College of Enginering; Dr. Matthew Mallarkey, Muma College of Business; Dr. Stephen Saddow, College of Engineering; Arash Takshi, College of Engineering; Dr. Gopal Thinakaran, Morsani College of Medicine; Matthew Palm, Valhall K9 International, LLC; Dr. Babak Kateb, Consultant, The Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics.

The team led by College of Engineering Professor Salvatore Morgera reached an important milestone in developing a new prototype of a COVID-19 testing device that functions similar to a breathalyzer, but on an entirely more complex level. The patent-pending device has been dubbed the “Bull Nose.”

Engineering PhD student Tiffany Miller said the research team created a gas sensor array that can detect the patterns of volatile organic compound metabolites that are uniquely produced when a person is infected with COVID-19 in a rapid, accurate and sensitive detection of exhaled breath. This “electronic nose” technology has the potential to serve as a low-cost and quick alternative to more invasive, time-consuming and costly nasal and throat swabs, the research team said.

The project already has garnered significant public attention because of its innovative approach and the team is pursuing federal funding to continue refining the concept. The team is also collaborating with Valhall K-9, one of the nation’s leading trainers of detection dogs, to expand the research to include augmenting a dog’s superior scent abilities to detect disease, and Manatee County scent dog non-profit BioScentDX.

The Florida High Tech Corridor Council is also supporting the project.

Remdesivir Ophthalmic Drops for Prevention of Covid-19 Transmission Via the Eye

PI: Dr. Vijaykumar Sutariya, Taneja College of Pharmacy. Co-PIs: Dr. Srinivas Tipparaju, Taneja College of Pharmacy; Dr. Kevin Sneed, Taneja College of Pharmacy; Dr. Manas Biswal, Taneja College of Pharmacy; Dr. Ozlem Guzeloglu-Kayisli, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Ramesh Ayala, Morsani College of Medicine; Dr. Radouil Tzekov, Morsani College of Medicine.

Early in the pandemic, health care providers began documenting a prevalence of viral pink eye, or conjunctivitis, in about 1 to 3 percent of the COVID-19 cases. Researchers soon found that that the eyes are an entry point for the virus and that the fluid from an infected person’s eyes could also spread infection.

The USF team led by Taneja College of Pharmacy Professor Vijaykumar Sutariya set out to find a way to address COVID-19 related eye infections through an anti-viral drug that has gained much global attention in the fight against the disease, remdesivir.

The project's goal is to make a remdesivir ophthalmic drop for prevention and transmission of COVID-19 and the eye infection that doctors have noted is a sign of the illness.

In the months that have passed, the USF team has worked to develop a formulation of remdesivir as an eye drop and carried out initial testing to see how they work on the spiked proteins that are characteristic of a coronavirus in the lab setting. They have also measured how quickly ocular cells will take up the medicine. Like most drug discovery projects, the process is deliberate and methodical to ensure effectiveness and safety. The team is pursuing a federal grant to further their efforts.

2-in-1 Nano-Aerosols Development to Mitigate COVID-19 Spread in Both Humans and PPE

PI: Dr. Alya Limayem, Taneja College of Pharmacy. Co-PIs: Dr. Norma Alcantar, College of Engineering; Dr. Donna Davis, Muma College of Business.

In this project, a USF interdisciplinary team is working to develop a bioactive nanoaerosol formulated from FDA approved green products, including a chitosan and zinc oxide combination (aero-CZNPs). The objective of this study is to design a 2-in-1 nanoaerosolized prophylaxis that acts as a virucide in indoor settings, such as hospitals, schools and restaurants. Also, the product could serve as an antiviral that once inhaled would reach the lungs to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and tamp down post-inflammatory infections, but still be safe and non-toxic to the patient.

USF Assistant Professor Alya Limayem of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, said that the multipurpose spray could be a cost-effective means of counteracting the highly-contagious virus that is easily spread by sneezing or even speaking through aerosol droplets, which can be suspended for a long time in the air. Their previously patented research study on the chitosan-zinc synergism has already shown its ability to reduce multidrug resistant bacterial infections. Chitosan is a sugar that is obtained from the hard outer skeleton of shellfish, including crab, lobster and shrimp, and as a refined product is frequently used in medicines.

Their team is made up of researchers in microbiology and pharmaceutics as well as in biomedical engineering and business including supply chain and logistics expertise to generate the broad spectrum anti-viral and ant-bacterial mist treatment. They envision the product to be used as an inhaler or nasal spray, and are working to secure federal research funding to advance the project.

Sterilization Mechanism of Corona Discharge for Masks and Environment to Combat COVID-19

PI: Dr. Sarah (Ying) Zhong, Department of Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering. Co-PI: Dr. Libin Ye, Department of Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology, College of Arts and Sciences.

Stirred by images of hospital workers in the early days of the pandemic being forced to reuse their N95 masks amid a global shortage of personal protective equipment, USF College of Engineering Assistant Professor Sarah (Ying) Zhong and Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Assistant Professor Libin Ye teamed up to address the critically-shortage of N95 masks by creating a new patent-pending device to disinfect and recharge the masks for more times of uses.

The new technology uses corona discharge, low-temperature atmospheric pressure plasma. The technology works by simultaneously deactivating pathogens on a mask and restoring its electrostatic charges. “With one minute of treatment, the mask is recharged,” Zhong said. This is the first technology able to disinfect and recharge masks simultaneously by preventing the deterioration of filtration efficiency caused by static charge loss, the research team said.

The corona discharge breaks the DNA of microbes and even kills spores on surfaces. Zhong and Ye also are developing handheld surface screening devices to sterilize homes, hospitals and other public areas, such as restaurants, schools and public transportation. The project since has partnered with medical device design firm BlackHagen of Dunedin, Fla., to move the project forward.

The Florida High Tech Corridor Council is also supporting the project.