Translating basic scientific research into treatments for disease can be a long process. But due to UCLA’s strong support for basic research, its scientists have been able to adapt and accelerate their work in search of solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The university’s researchers are working on more than 230 COVID-19-related projects, including many led by members of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. The center’s faculty each have years of experience pioneering new approaches for understanding and intervening in cancer, heart disease, immune disorders, dementia, genetic blood diseases, and more. Now they are pooling their knowledge through multi-disciplinary scientific collaborations to develop new tests, treatments, and vaccines for the novel coronavirus.
Assembling the Experts
Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, who creates stem cell-derived three-dimensional lung organoids, is working with Dr. Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, a virologist, and Dr. Robert Damoiseaux, an expert in molecular screening, to rapidly identify an existing therapy that could reduce infection and lung damage from COVID-19. Arumugaswami and Damoiseaux screened 430 drug candidates before finding that the cancer drug Berzosertib could be a possible treatment. The team is infecting Gomperts’ lung organoids and stem cell-derived heart cells with the virus to create a “disease-in-a-dish” model to test Berzosertib and other drug candidates in the laboratory.
Drs. Gay Crooks and Christopher Seet are using stem cells to model the immune response to COVID-19 in the lab. They hope to discover which parts of the virus provoke the strongest immune responses, supporting development of an effective vaccine. Immunotherapy researcher Dr. Lili Yang is testing rare invariant natural killer T cells as a potential treatment, while bioengineering professor Dr. Song Li is working on a booster that could help make a vaccine more long-lasting.
An Important Partner
Behind the scientists making such strides, a rapid response to COVID-19 has required the help of another crucial research collaborator: philanthropy. The UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center uses philanthropy to support innovative research from discovery to translation. Private support from individuals and foundations is critical to the center’s ability to invest in high-risk, high-reward projects and provide researchers with the tools and infrastructure they need to succeed. Thanks to the center’s innovation and research award program, made possible largely by donors’ support, its members were well positioned to use their unique basic science expertise to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a result of the pandemic, everyone on campus is committed to finding ways that their unique expertise can help out,” says researcher Gomperts. “So many of my colleagues have repurposed their labs to work on the virus. It’s very seldom that you have one thing that everybody’s working on, and it has been truly inspiring to see how everyone has come together to try and solve this.”
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Published October 2020