College of Medicine and Life Sciences researchers set focus to
April 23, 2020: In response to the worldwide outbreak of
COVID-19, researchers in The University of Toledo College
of Medicine and Life Sciences have pivoted their focus to
projects aimed at thwarting the pandemic.
UToledo scientists are pursuing new treatments, searching for
biomarkers that could help physicians better understand disease
progression, exploring the body’s immune response to the virus,
and investigating the intricacies of the virus itself in hopes
of helping build a vaccine.
A research task force led by a pair of veteran medical
scientists in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences has been
established to foster collaboration and share resources and
ideas across the University. More than 100 individuals —
including faculty from the UToledo colleges of Pharmacy and
Pharmaceutical Sciences, Nursing, Health and Human Services,
Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Engineering — have joined
“Our faculty have really stepped forward to tackle the COVID-19
pandemic in a meaningful way,” said Dr. Christopher Cooper,
dean of the College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “Ultimately,
COVID-19 will be solved by innovative scientists who figure out
how we effectively treat and prevent this.”
The UToledo Medical Research Society on April 17 approved
$25,000 in funding to each of three projects in the College of
Medicine and Life Sciences to jump start research aimed at
Two of those projects are for clinical trials of drugs that
might reduce the severity of symptoms.
Dr. Cheryl McCullumsmith, professor and chair of the
UToledo Department of Psychiatry and the co-chair of the
COVID-19 research task force, is investigating whether
fluoxetine, a commonly prescribed antidepressant, might be a
novel treatment able to prevent serious complications from
The drug, sold under the brand name Prozac, has
previously been shown to block expression of a cell-signaling
protein called Interleukin-6 that can trigger an overwhelming
immune response called a cytokine storm. In COVID-19, cytokine
storms can prove fatal.
“Fluoxetine has extraordinarily strong evidence in its action as
a blocker of IL-6 and cytokine storms in both animal models of
infection and in human illness such as rheumatoid arthritis and
others,” McCullumsmith said. “This project aims to prevent
serious outcomes such as hospitalization, respiratory failure
and death in people when they are first infected with COVID-19.
The goal is to use an existing drug in a new way to prevent
serious complications of COVID-19 during the time it will take
scientists to develop more lasting solutions, such as vaccines
and antiviral treatments.”
In the second project, Dr. Elissar Andari, assistant
professor of psychiatry, is moving to test whether oxytocin, a
non-steroid hormone known for its role in sociality and
attachment, can reduce hyper-inflammation and boost T-cell
counts to help the body fight off COVID-19.
“Oxytocin is safe and has been prescribed clinically for more
than 50 years,” Andari said. “We believe the mechanisms by which
this drug can have a potential is through its known
anti-inflammatory effects, as well as through its protective and
pro-immune responses. Oxytocin also has known interaction with
the ACE2 system, which is the receptor host of the virus.”
Both clinical trials are planned to begin after receiving final
approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board.
The third project granted seed funding from the Medical Research
Society will go to a project overseen by Dr. Matam
Vijay-Kumar, associate professor in the Department of
Physiology and Pharmacology.
Dr. Vijay-Kumar is investigating flagellin — a bacterial
component previously shown to eliminate viral infection — as a
possible way to harness innate immune responses to fight the
novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. His project is also
aimed at identifying biomarkers that can help clinicians
diagnose the early and late stage biomarkers.
“We expect flagellin will serve as an effective therapeutic to
restore impaired early anti-viral immune responses, prevent
viral entry, and protect against lung and heart damage,” Dr.
Vijay-Kumar said. “Additionally, we will investigate to what
extent DNase I, an enzyme used to treat cystic fibrosis
patients, will offer protection against virus-induced lung
pathology at late stages.
The Medical Research Society was created in 2014 by a
group of community donors to support biomedical research at
UToledo. Seed funding from the society has helped provide early
data to leverage major grants from nonprofits and federal
funding agencies. To date, UToledo faculty have received more
than $5.1 million in external funding for projects initially
supported by the society.
“It is wonderful to see the engagement of our community leaders
who support the Medical Research Society and who have funded
three of the projects that are aimed at this scourge,” Cooper
said. “This funding will allow our researchers to fast-track
these crucial projects.”
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04/28/20 19:09:23 -0700.