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A new interdisciplinary co-op between researchers, healthcare and industry formed to fight the virus

Researcher Sinem Tas
Sinem Tas. Photo: Agata Garpenlind

The fight against COVID-19 continues. In Lund, researchers have been awarded a large Vinnova grant to identify a compound that could be used to prevent viral infection, and thus save lives. The project is a co-operation between preclinical, clinical researchers and a company, an efficient way for creating synergies in research. Project Manager for the study is researcher Sinem Tas, Fellow in Darcy Wagner’s research group.

Congratulations on the grant Sinem Tas, Project Manager for the study! What does the grant mean to you as researchers?
– The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact us all. I´m happy to be part of a research project that can contribute to the fight against COVID-19. If we can identify a compound that could be used to prevent viral infection, it could be used by healthcare workers and in vulnerable populations, for example, and could help save lives.

Tell us about your role in this project, project manager, what does it mean?
– My role is based on three key steps, which are planning, organizing and controlling. Thus my duties involve planning and execution of experiments, maintaining an overview of resources and budget, managing timetables, revising project plans (if needed) and ensuring effective communication between the three project partners to guide the project forward.

Tell us, in layman's terms, about the project you received the grant for:
– The most recent SARS-CoV-2 outbreak is deadly. Even now that vaccines have been approved and the first patients have received them in the UK and the US, concerns remain with administering a vaccine to the world population and technologies to ramp up production are still needed. The long-term efficacy of these vaccines also remains unknown. During this time, it is critical to identify additional approaches to protect vulnerable patient populations so that society can begin to return to near normal. Developing new drugs from scratch is a lengthy process. Thus, repurposing drugs, which are already tested and have known safety profiles in humans, is a promising strategy to develop therapies for COVID-19. However, current lab models that are used for virus infection do not mimic the human respiratory tract, which is thought to be one of the first sites of viral entry. Thus, in this project, we will use lung cells taken from healthy patients and patients with underlying diseases known to have increased risk for developing COVID19 from SARS-CoV-2 infection to hopefully identify approved compounds which could be repurposed for preventive SARS-CoV-2 therapy in vulnerable populations.

How, more specifically, will you use the grant?
– We aim to use a new model of human airways we have built between the three grant partners to help us identify new druggable targets to prevent SARS-CoV-2 entry. This model will allow us to directly infect human airway cells ex vivo with a SARS-CoV-2 pseudovirus as well as examining their potential efficacy in cells derived from patients with underlying co-morbidities known to increase COVID-19 associated disease severity and mortality.

Since this research is Corona-related, you´re working under time pressure. Is that good or bad?
– Of course there is a time pressure. Everyday more people are dying due to Corona. It is not easy to work under time pressure but as a scientist, we have a huge responsibility. Like other researchers around the world, we need to work day and night to develop new therapies to stop the virus and bring daily life back to normal again.

In which way can Corona research benefit from your current researcher tools?
– Preventing initial SARS-CoV-2 infection in the upper airways is an attractive approach, but compounds which can accomplish this remain unknown, mainly due to a lack of suitable models of the upper airways. Together with Cellevate AB, we developed a new method for medium-high throughput drug screening of human airway cells which allows several hundred compounds to be evaluated on cells from individual patients. The model we have developed with our collaborators will fill an important gap for current and future drug screening efforts for the upper or lower airways using human airway cells which can accelerate the time from discovery to clinical trials.

How can/will patients benefit from this new knowledge?
– It is clear that the elderly population and patients with certain underlying comorbidities
remain vulnerable globally. The majority of current policies seek to protect the vulnerable populations of societies (e.g. elderly and patients with underlying disease, as well as healthcare workers). We aim to identify compounds which can prevent SARS-CoV-2 entry. Identified drugs could be given to patients in risk groups which would reduce their risk of developing COVID-19 or potentially reduce its severity. This could further reduce the burden on the healthcare system.

Three partners are involved in the project, who are they?
– Our team consists of preclinical, clinical researchers and a company. Dr. Darcy Wagner is the project leader. Darcy and I are the preclinical arm of the team. Dr. Sandra Lindstedt is senior consultant and docent in cardiothoracic surgery and heart and lung transplantation at Lund University Hospital, Region Skåne. Our industrial partner is Cellevate AB. Cellevate is an innovative biotech company based in Lund, Sweden, that develops the next generation of cell culture systems.

Who will do what in the study?
– Dr. Wagner’s lab will conduct the drug screening portion of the project, including building the primary human lung model as well as drug screening assays and pharmacological discovery in that model. Dr. Lindstedt´s and Wagner’s groups have previously developed techniques to isolate primary lung cells from discarded surgical waste from lung transplantation. Furthermore, Dr. Lindstedt has been treating patients with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and we discuss regularly with her about her constant input and clinical perspective regarding implementation of potential therapies. The Wagner Lab and Cellevate AB have developed a new cell culture system custom designed and produced for this project.

What are the pros and cons of these kinds of cooperations?
– The exciting thing about all interdisciplinary cooperation is that you bring different perspectives to solve a difficult problem or generate a unique solution. However, each group has their own way of working and their own terminology, so communication between the parties is very important. Frequent meetings and communication is also important to keep things moving and that is where we benefit from the compact structure of Lund. All project partners are within a 15 minute walk from one another (BMC, Medicone Village and the Lund University Hospital), so that allows spontaneous visits and sharing of equipment and resources, which we think is why we have been able to make such fast progress on this in a short amount of time.

Sinem Tas

Age: 34
Research group: Lung Bioengineering and Regeneration
Education/background: PhD in Membrane Science and Engineering from the University of Twente, the Netherlands. Currently, Marie Curie Cofund/European Respiratory Society (ERS) RESPIRE3 Fellow in Dr. Darcy Wagner’s group
Time at EMV: Since March 2018
In free time: Argentine tango dancer

Title and role in this project that the grant was received for: Associate Researcher, Project Manager for this grant
Name of project: High-throughput screening with primary human airway cells for repurposing drugs to prevent COVID-19
Purpose of project: Identify compounds to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and validate in primary human airway cells from patients with COVID-19 mortality-associated co-morbidities
Grant: 4 662 500 SEK over two years from Vinnova

Sinem´s profile in LUs Research Portal