Six from MIT awarded research funding to address Covid-19

May 19, 2020

Six from MIT awarded research funding to address Covid-19

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Mindy Blodgett | Institute for Medical Engineering and Science

Clockwise from upper left: Angela Belcher, Bruce Walker, Jianzhu Chen, Feng Zhang, Siqi Zheng, and Lee Gehrke

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As the world grapples with the continuing challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, a multi-institutional initiative has been formed to support a broad range of research aimed at addressing the devastation to global public health, including projects by six MIT faculty.

Called the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR), and based at Harvard Medical School (HMS), it was conceived to both battle the myriad effects of SARS-CoV-2 and prepare for future health crises. Now, MassCPR has announced more than $16.5 million in funding to support 62 research projects, all with the potential for significant impact in fighting the pandemic on several fronts.

MassCPR includes scientists and clinicians from Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts University, and the University of Massachusetts, as well as local biomedical research institutes, biotech companies and academic medical centers. The projects selected in the initial round of funding were based on the MassCPR’s primary scientific and clinical focus areas: the development of vaccines, therapies and diagnostic tools, clinical management, epidemiology and understanding how SARS-CoV-2 causes disease.

Of the projects selected, six are led by MIT faculty:

Lee Gehrke, the Hermann von Helmholtz Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), a professor at HMS and a member of the faculty at the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program (HST), will receive funding for work to develop a “simple and direct antigen rapid test for SARS-CoV-2 infections.” A Cambridge-based startup, E25Bio, which is using technology developed by Gerhke, has been working on a paper-based test that can deliver results in under half an hour. Gehrke, the CTO of E25Bio, says that the funding will help to accelerate the final stages of producing and introducing this test into patient care. “We have been working on diagnostic tests overall for over 10 years,” Gehrke says. “We started working on a Covid test as soon as the news came of potential danger back in January.” Gehrke says that the test is “manufacturing-ready” and that they have conducted small-scale manufacturing runs with a local Massachusetts-based company that will be able to scale up once clinical tests are complete. E25Bio has submitted the test to the FDA for emergency use authorization.

Angela Belcher, head of the Department of Biological Engineering, the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and a member of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, will also receive support for her research proposal, “Novel nanocarbon materials for life-development of distributable textiles that filtrate/neutralize dangerous viruses/bacteria to protect medical professional and civilians from virus pandemic disease.”

Jianzhu Chen, a professor in the Department of Biology, also a member of the Koch Institute and a co-director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was selected for a project focusing on “enhancing mRNA-based coronavirus vaccines with lymph node-targeted delivery and neutralizing antibody-inducing adjuvant.” Chen says that the grant will help fund proposed research aimed at devising an effective vaccine, and that the money will “help us to jumpstart our research on SARS-CoV-2,” as well as vaccines to address other pathogens.

Bruce Walker, professor of the practice at IMES and the Department of Biology, founding director of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, and Phillip T and Susan M Ragon Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, will receive support for research on “A highly networked, exosome-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.”

Feng Zhang’s project, “Development of a point-of-care diagnostic for COVID-19,” was also selected. Zhang is the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences and biological engineering at MIT, and a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and faculty director of the Center for Real Estate will receive funding for research on quantifying “the role of social distancing in shaping the Covid-19 curve: incorporating adaptive behavior and preference shifts in epidemiological models using novel big data in 344 Chinese cities.” Zheng calls the funding “crucial” in research that will compare different regions and how people react to social and physical distancing during a pandemic, and will examine various government policies aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.