Newswise — In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa State University’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) has selected seven high-impact projects to receive institutional funding through a new seed program dedicated to addressing the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. 

Established by the OVPR in late May 2020, the COVID-19 Research Seed Grant program (CRSG) was created to encourage faculty in all academic disciplines to apply their expertise to the COVID-19 pandemic. The highly competitive application process welcomed 21 research proposals, with five of Iowa State’s seven colleges represented. While four projects were initially slated to receive CRSG funding, additional financial support from the College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences allowed seven teams to ultimately be selected. 

Each of the teams will receive $15,000 to pursue projects rapidly for up to six months. CRSG funding will support the initial stages of high-risk, high-reward projects that address the COVID-19 crisis. 

“One of the most important functions that research serves is to explore solutions to society’s greatest challenges, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is one of them,” said Iowa State Interim Vice President for Research Guru Rao. “We had originally budgeted to fund four projects through this program. However, the quality of the proposals our researchers developed was so outstanding, we are delighted that we are able to support seven total projects through collaboration with our college partners.” 

COVID-19 Research Seed Grant Recipients:

Proposal Title: “Analysis and Therapeutic Targeting of the SARS‐CoV‐2 Frameshift Element”

Walter Moss, assistant professor, Roy J. Carver Department of Biophysics, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology

Allen Miller, professor, Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology

Cathy Miller, professor, Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventative Medicine

Funding Source: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

One of the main medical challenges associated with combating the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a SARS‐CoV‐2 infection, is the current lack of a treatment or cure. To identify a strong antiviral drug, Moss, Miller, and Miller believe an answer lies in targeting the structure of the virus RNA genome itself to determine ways to slow down its replication in human hosts. By better understanding the RNA structure of SARS‐CoV‐2, they will be able to identify drugs capable of binding specifically to the virus genome, altering its ability to replicate.


Proposal Title: “COVID-19 Vaccine Development”

Michael Cho, professor, Department of Biomedical Sciences

Funding Source: Office of the Vice President for Research

Cho’s focus lies not in treating COVID-19 once the virus is already contracted by a patient, but in finding a way to prevent it entirely by creating a protective vaccine. Operating on the concept of eliciting antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, Cho plans to develop a vaccine based on the receptor binding domain of SARS-CoV-2. His vaccine candidate is currently being evaluated in mice, and he will use CRSG funding to finish the process as quickly as possible before moving on to conduct immunogenicity studies in non-human primates, as well as clinical trials.


Proposal Title: “Development of a High Throughput Drug Screening Platform for COVID-19”

Donald Sakaguchi, Morrill professor, Department of Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology

Metin Uz, associate scientist, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

David Verhoeven, assistant professor, Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine

Funding Source: Office of the Vice President for Research

Development of a protective COVID-19 vaccine and effective virus treatment protocols are both long-term goals, resulting in the immediate need for a platform to better understand host-pathogen interactions. Sakaguchi, Uz, and Verhoeven’s research will help to develop a novel, human-relevant 3D in vitro model of co-cultured human respiratory system cells to mimic the respiratory tract more accurately. The model will be used to screen COVID-19 drug candidates before they are used in human patients. Current screening platforms are predominantly based on static 2D cell culture, which does not correctly represent the microenvironment of the human respiratory system or cell-to-cell interactions.


Proposal Title: “Rapid, Low-Cost Detection of COVID-19 in Self-Administered Human Saliva Samples Using Printed Graphene Electrochemical Sensor”

Jonathan Claussen, associate professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Carmen Gomes, associate professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Funding Source: Office of the Vice President for Research

As testing for COVID-19 continues to be a complicated, costly, and often unpleasant process, Claussen and Gomes contend that there is a critical need to develop a simple, low-cost, and accurate technique for diagnosis. The team’s proposed testing system would use self-collected human saliva samples instead of nasal swabs administered by a medical professional. The alternate system would be able to provide results in approximately 20 minutes and would not require lab equipment or trained personnel. The technology could be used to check for COVID-19 before employees enter their place of work each day, or to help patients know if they are virus free and able to exit self-quarantine. Each test kit would cost less than $6 — compared to $35.92 for COVID-19 tests developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and $51.33 for commercial tests.


Proposal Title: “Point-of-Care Sensors for Rapid and Low-Cost Detection of COVID-19 Infections”

Pranav Shrotriya, professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Marit Nilsen-Hamilton, professor, Roy J. Carver Department of Biophysics, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology

Funding Source: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Engineering

The increasing demand for access to COVID-19 testing resources is also the focal point for Shrotriya and Nilsen-Hamilton’s research, with an emphasis on reducing the rate of false negative and positive results. By using electrochemical sensors, the duo plans to develop a portable device that can detect the presence of SARS CoV-2 at a molecular level in saliva. To identify SARS-CoV2 infections, Shrotriya and Nilsen-Hamilton will equip sensor surfaces with DNA sequences that can hybridize with portions of the virus’ RNA genome. The sensor will convert the hybridization into an electrical signal, resulting in a positive or negative response.


Proposal Title: “A Proof-of-Concept Study Towards a Handheld Respiratory Virus Sensor for Rapid Identification and Quantification of SARS-CoV-2 in Exhaled Breath”

Meng Lu, associate professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering

Liang Dong, professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Jianqiang Zhang, associate professor, Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine

Funding Source: Office of the Vice President for Research

Although also interested in examining better avenues for COVID-19 testing, Lu, Dong, and Zhang are looking away from saliva altogether and opting instead for a different type of sample to screen for the virus: breath. As simple as current alcohol breath tests, the team plans to collect virus particles directly from exhaled breath. The finished product will be a handheld breathalyzer with a response time of less than seven minutes and at a cost of less than $1 per test.


Proposal Title: “Machine Learning-Based Predictive Modeling of the Host Microbiome to Improve Host Immunity to SARS-CoV-2 Infection”

Claus Kadelka, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics

Albert Jergens, professor, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences

Gregory Phillips, professor, Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine

Michael Wannemuehler, professor, Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine

Funding Source: College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

While the roll out of a COVID-19 vaccine is still at least a year away, Kadelka, Jergens, Phillips, and Wannemuehler are investigating ways to ensure that once it is ready, it can be as effective as possible. The human gut and its myriad microorganisms have a large influence on the function of the immune system, including how effective vaccines are. Together, the group is pursuing a way to combine experimental data with machine-learning modeling to identify specific host and microbial genes, and the products they encode, that may boost or suppress host immunity. The long-term goal of the project is to identify features of the microbiome that boost SARS-CoV-2 vaccine responses.


By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research