Challenge accepted: Researchers tackle COVID-19 crisis
Academic agility is key to finding solutions, with UTS researchers on the frontline.
This is the first article in a series highlighting the extraordinary research taking place across the University of Technology Sydney in the time of pandemic.
What would convince you to give up your life’s work?
That’s the incredible question researchers around the world have been confronted with as a public health emergency unfolds.
Distinguished professor Dayong Jin has spent the past decade driving the transformation of fundamental photonics science and nanomaterials into diagnostic tools for disease detection, including cancer. He and his team have chosen to shift the focus of their work to address the deepening crisis.
“The only way we will beat this virus is if scientists and engineers collectively utilise the knowledge and skills we possess to fight it on all fronts.
“As a technology developer, we know we have got to do something to join this fight. The way we are able to quickly refocus our projects at UTS highlights the value of the platform we built on both practical research, and the power of cross discipline collaboration, always aligned to solving real world problems,” he said.
Together with UTS colleagues, Associate Professors Olga Shimoni and Majid Warkiani, the principal ideas developed around prostate cancer detection are now being incorporated into designing a device to test the COVID-19 viral load of asymptomatic patients.
“Our system is designed to work based on saliva samples collected from individuals – not the nasal or throat swabs as currently used. It combines an integrated workflow comprised of techniques such virus RNA extraction, isothermal PCR, and CRISPR genome -editing for both COVID-19 and/or Influenza types A and B - all in less than 30 minutes,” said Associate Professor Warkiani.
The way we are able to quickly refocus our projects at UTS highlights the value of the platform we built on both practical research, and the power of cross discipline collaboration, always aligned to solving real world problems.
Distinguished Professor Dayong Jin
UTS School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences
UTS scientists are also applying their research to find new treatments to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on those most at risk from the potentially fatal disease.
While most people experience mild respiratory symptoms with COVID-19, about one in 10 develop pneumonia and severe disease, says medical researcher Professor Phil Hansbro from the School of Life Sciences. The death rate is high for those who end up in intensive care.
“We need to target treatments to those who are most at risk of progressing to these more severe diseases,” says Professor Hansbro, who is leading a Sydney-based team undertaking high-security testing of potential treatments.
Professor Hansbro says the most severe cases of COVID-19 are marked by virally induced “hyperinflammation”, which damages the patient’s tissues as the body tries to fight off the virus.
His team of researchers is working to highlight the components of that hyperinflammation, and developing and testing treatments to inhibit the hyperinflammatory response and prevent the acute respiratory distress that can follow.
For Dr Carmine Gentile, how COVID-19 affects the heart is now his focus. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is already one of the leading causes of death worldwide. COVID-19 mortality rates have shown that people with pre-existing CVD are seven time more like to die from COVID-19 complications.
Dr Gentile, from the School of Biomedical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and IT, is now leading a team exploring evidence the disease may target specific cells in the human heart.
“As so many more CVD patients died because of COVID-19 and we are one of the few groups worldwide that 3D bioprint human heart tissues using stem cells, we decided to contribute by using 3D bioprinted heart tissues to better understand how the virus affects the hearts of CVD patients and potentially develop new therapies for them,” said Dr Gentile.
And as the country turns to recovery, UTS has used its expertise in data science and analysis to develop a freely-available tool to help local governments throughout New South Wales model and quantify the social and economic impact based on Covid-19 spread and Federal and State government policies.
Distinguished Professor Fang Chen, Executive Director of UTS Data Science, says the information obtained utilising the tool provides insight into local conditions reflecting the current situation and the potential changes.
“Using publicly available data we have developed a scenario planning tool which uses Geographic Information System based analytics to demonstrate the scale of the impact in all LGAs according to various social and economic indicators. This includes business impact, Covid-19 risk, rent changes, risk for vulnerable cohorts (such as aged care and homeless), social sentiment, and mobility,” said Distinguished Professor Chen.