Today, four UBC Faculty of Medicine researchers — Drs. Richard Lester, Srinivas Murthy, Natalie Prystajecky and Mel Krajden — were announced the principal investigators of teams collectively receiving more than $2.4 million in grants from the federal government to study COVID-19. The funding is focused on accelerating the development, testing, and implementation of measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.
The federal government is providing the funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canada Research Coordinating Committee through the New Frontiers in Research Fund, the International Development Research Centre, and Genome Canada.
We have a responsibility to take action and accelerate research that will not just save lives today, but improve our response to future outbreaks.
Dr. Dermot Kelleher
Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President, Heath, UBC
“As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, we have a responsibility to take action and accelerate research that will not just save lives today, but improve our response to future outbreaks,” says Dr. Dermot Kelleher, Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Vice-President, Heath at UBC. “We are very fortunate to have such expertise in this area at UBC and to have the support of the Canadian government to help advance research and contribute to the global response underway.”
The CIHR funding will support the researchers’ work over the next two years. Research findings and data produced as a result of the funding will be shared rapidly and openly to inform the global public health response and to help save lives.
Providing care to patients in isolation? There’s an app for that
Dr. Richard Lester, a physician and associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases, is leading research to determine the potential for a mobile virtual health care app, called WelTel, to help people who are self-isolating to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
Dr. Lester and his team — which includes co-investigator Giuseppe Carenini, professor in the UBC department of computer science — are receiving $500,000 from CIHR to deploy the app, which has already been successfully used in Kenya helping HIV patients adhere to their antiretroviral therapy to achieve undetectable levels of the virus and prevent the spread of HIV.
“Now we have an opportunity to show how WelTel can help stop the spread of COVID-19 through supporting patients who are self-isolating at home,” says Dr. Lester.
Developing clinical guidelines to treat infected patients
Dr. Srinivas Murthy, clinical associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s department of pediatrics and investigator and pediatrician at BC Children’s Hospital, is leading a national study of hospitalized patients with confirmed COVID-19.
His team — which includes Dr. Manish Sadarangani, assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s department of pediatrics and investigator at BC Children’s Hospital — received $954,936 to conduct research on how best to treat the disease. The team is also working to develop formal treatment guidelines for the World Health Organization.
“It may sound rudimentary, but we still do not know who gets sick and why an individual may become sicker,” he says. “It’s important to gain a deeper understanding of COVID-19 in order to help infected Canadians and people around the world.”
Dr. Murthy is also co-investigator on a number of other projects led by researchers across Canada who also received CIHR funding to study COVID-19.
Trying to answer the unknowns of COVID-19
A team of researchers from UBC, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), and Simon Fraser University is receiving $1 million from CIHR, in addition to $150,000 they received last month from Genome BC.
The team — co-led by Dr. Natalie Prystajecky, clinical assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s department of pathology and laboratory medicine, and Dr. Mel Krajden, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UBC and medical director of the BCCDC Public Health Laboratory — is also trying to answer the many unknowns about COVID-19.
“There are many unanswered questions about COVID-19,” says Dr. Prystajecky, who is also the program head for the environmental microbiology program and the molecular microbiology and genomics program at the BCCDC Public Health Laboratory. “For us, being on the frontlines of the response, it is incredibly important to try to fill in some of these knowledge gaps.”
Collaboration between researchers across Canada
UBC Faculty of Medicine researchers Dr. Josef Penninger and Dr. Julie Bettinger are also contributing to additional COVID-19 projects across Canada that received CIHR funding.
Dr. Penninger, director of the Life Sciences Institute and Canada 150 Chair Functional Genetics, is a co-principal investigator of an international research team led by Dr. Haibo Zhang at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, that received $1 million from CIHR to perform a clinical trial on patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Bettinger, associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases and investigator at BC Children’s Hospital, is a principal investigator of a project led by Dr. Scott Halperin at Dalhousie University that received $499,904. The project will examine the cultural dimensions of COVID-19, such as how individuals and community understand and react to the disease. The data will be used to improve the process by which public health policies are created and implemented.