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WVU Health Sciences Center lab-based research teams sustained progress even during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic

man in lab coat, black gloves, injects substance into testing unit

Dr. Darius Becker-Krail (foreground), Dr. William Walker, and Hecmarie Meléndez-Fernández conduct an assay in the lab. (WVU Photo/ Dakota Sabo)

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Despite the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginia University Health Sciences Center labs were largely able to stay open and functional, allowing critical research to continue. Not only were researchers able to continue their work during the pandemic, but there was actually an increase in research productivity.

The Department of Neuroscience saw an increase in publications and grants awarded, from 89 total publications in fiscal year 2019 to more than 160 publications in FY 2020.

School of Pharmacy faculty members Lori Hazlehurst and Mark McLaughlin, affiliated with the WVU Cancer Institute and Modulation Therapeutics Inc., developed a drug called MTI-201, to treat uveal melanoma, the most common form of eye cancer, after the cancer has traveled to another part of the body. Hazlehurst and McLaughlin received FDA approval for a clinical trial for the drug that will treat eye cancer from the inside out.

During this same timeframe WVU also received grant funding for clinical research related to neurological disorders. This funding will examine psychosocial stress-induced vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease with the research led by Paul Chantler, associate professor of exercise physiology.

“Chantler’s first funded NIH R01 grant application focuses on one of the major rising challenges for our aging population in the state and nationally,” said John Hollander, professor and assistant dean for Research and Graduate Education, Human Performance Department. “Understanding the mechanisms that contribute to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease will be critical as considering therapeutic strategies to treat and or aid these individuals.”

According to Randy Nelson, School of Medicine professor and chair for the Department of Neuroscience, that research of this caliber was able to continue, even during a pandemic, means that WVU Health Sciences is able to maintain and exceed its status among peer institutions and continue an upward trajectory of discovery and innovation.

“Every metric that you look at went up, not steady, not down, but up,” Nelson said. “I was impressed that productivity increased during a pandemic.”

In addition to typical research focus areas, many investigators also took on critical COVID-19 related roles, including mask fit testing and development, aerosol sampling and modeling, education and outreach, sequencing of variants and development of assays to measure antibody levels. Many of these efforts “at the bench” were critical to translational research projects that were led by Dr. Sally Hodder and funded by the NIH.

The location of Health Sciences was beneficial, too, as the surrounding rural communities experienced low rates of infections, while other universities and medical centers in larger cities were forced to shut down for months, Nelson explained.

Health Sciences Center biomedical sciences graduate students also benefited from the labs staying open throughout the pandemic. Nelson said WVU students were able to stay on schedule, whereas other students may have lost a year’s work of work. 

“The rate of Ph.D.s awarded was not negatively affected by COVID-19”, said Heath Damron, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology in the School of Medicine and director of the HSC vaccine development center.  “Students adapted and accomplished their goals.”

The WVU Research Office and Fred King and Sheena Murphy worked with individual HSC principal investigators on plans for their research teams to meet the safety guidance that was in place and keep labs running, while working toward the groups getting back full capacity as they are today, according to Laura Gibson, Health Sciences senior associate vice president for research and graduate education and associate dean of research for the School of Medicine. 

“The fact that the Health Sciences Center teams pushed through unexpected challenges and were very nimble in their approach to their research and the overall response to the pandemic is a reflection of their resilience,” Gibson said. “There is no denying it has been a really tough year and a half overall; however, even with significant challenges and uncertainty the faculty, students, and staff kept moving forward – it has been a reminder that we really can do anything when we are in it together.”



CONTACT: Wendy Holdren
Senior Communication Specialist
WVU Health Sciences Center

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