Merkin Institute Catalyzes COVID-19 Research at Caltech

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COVID-19 poses an unprecedented challenge for the global scientific community. The rampant spread of the viral infection is an urgent call for researchers to develop and translate a new body of knowledge into novel tools to confront the disease. At Caltech, the Merkin Institute for Translational Research is empowering teams of researchers to meet this challenge.

Although no researcher at Caltech was studying coronaviruses before the pandemic, many groups had highly relevant expertise and new ideas about how to help fight the virus and its effects. To help mobilize their efforts, Caltech's Merkin Institute for Translational Research offered grants to fund projects relevant to COVID-19. "Caltech faculty bring their unique experience, technologies, and innovative capacity to this complex problem," says Barbara Wold, director of the Merkin Institute and Bren Professor of Molecular Biology. "We want to enable them to move boldly and rapidly."

With the support of President Thomas F. Rosenbaum and Provost David A. Tirrell, and guidance from the Merkin Institute's faculty executive committee, more than 50 proposals were considered, and 21 new projects and working groups were funded for an initial six-month period. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the funded investigators come from five of Caltech's six divisions. Many of the grants support projects that meet urgent needs, while others focus on longer-term impact. High-risk, high-reward projects were encouraged with the expectation that some will come to fruition as planned, some will not, and others will change greatly as our understanding of the new disease unfolds.

One of the grant recipients, Matt Thomson, assistant professor of computational biology and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, is adapting experimental and computational approaches previously developed in his laboratory to monitor gene expression profiles and to discover potential inhibitors of so-called cytokine storms, which are severe immune reactions that can occur as a result of coronavirus infection. Another group of projects, including those led by Caltech professors Pamela Bjorkman and André Hoelz , are examining the biochemistry and structural biology of proteins and protein complexes that interact with the virus to better understand the infection process and to identify novel targets that may inhibit it.

Niles Pierce, professor of applied and computational mathematics and bioengineering, is one of several faculty members working on novel approaches to testing. He is modifying technology that he created to amplify and analyze genetic material so that it can be used for a simple and inexpensive home test for COVID-19 infection.

Meanwhile, Robert Grubbs, Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and Nobel laureate, is using his grant to develop spray-on antiviral coatings for use on plastics and surfaces we encounter daily. Dean Mobbs, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience and Chen Scholar; Cindy Hagan, research assistant professor of neuroscience; and Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology, and director of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, are leading projects to understand the impact of stress and isolation.

Established in 2019, the Merkin Institute was made possible through a gift from Dr. Richard Merkin, a Caltech trustee and the founder of Heritage Provider Network. Wold noted that the challenges presented by COVID-19 aligned directly with the Institute's core mission to help Caltech scientists realize the full biomedical potential of their discoveries and inventions. The Merkin Institute supports all steps in the translational process, from basic discovery through to clinical application.

"Combatting the most pressing health care emergency of the 21st century requires a cross section of translational data and physical science efforts," says Merkin. "I'm thrilled that the Institute is able to identify and execute on so many promising translational projects."

After the initial six-month funding ends, additional resources will be offered for the most promising COVID-19 related projects and for new translational research endeavors.

The complete list of grant recipients is:

Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology; director and Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center

Michael B. Elowitz, professor of biology and bioengineering, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and executive officer for biological engineering

Rustem F. Ismagilov, Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and director of the Jacobs Institute for Molecular Engineering for Medicine

Douglas C. Rees, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and dean of graduate studies

Yu-Chong Tai, Anna L. Rosen Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering, Andrew and Peggy Cherng Medical Engineering Leadership Chair, and executive officer for medical engineering


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