Science lab spotlight

Fighting coronavirus through research

The Gehrke Lab’s work on viruses and their involvement in COVID-19 research

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The Gehrke Lab is working to develop diagnostic and treatment tools for COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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Lee Gehrke and his lab have previously researched flaviviruses such as Zika and dengue viruses.

With millions of patients affected by COVID-19, a novel coronavirus likely transmitted initially by bats, Lee Gehrke, biology professor and faculty at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, is investigating potential diagnostic tools and treatments as a response to the world’s pandemic crisis.  

As a virologist, Gehrke explores the pathogenesis and progression of viruses. Previously, the Gehrke Lab developed rapid diagnostic tools for both the dengue and Zika virus, which are types of flavivirus. Now, the lab has extended its scope of research to discover rapid diagnostic tools for COVID-19, utilizing past pathogenesis techniques for the dengue and Zika viruses.

Although flaviviruses and coronaviruses are from different viral families, they are both positive, single-stranded RNA viruses that can translate proteins directly from their RNA genome. Generally, coronaviruses are more dangerous than flaviviruses because the “SARS-CoV-2 [severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2] virus is transmissible through aerosol droplets, through person-to-person contact, and potentially through contact with contaminated surfaces. Because the world's population had not been exposed previously to the newly emergent SARS-CoV-2 virus, there was no prior immunity to it,” said Gehrke. 

He also explained that “flaviviruses have a genome that is about 10,000 to 11,000 nucleotide bases while the coronavirus genome is larger, at about 30,000 nucleotide bases. In addition to being larger, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has a more complex replication strategy than the flaviviruses.” Rather than synthesizing continuous RNA transcripts, coronaviruses generate small, segmented RNAs that make the viruses’ pathogenesis harder to study. 

As one of the few labs authorized to conduct research on biosafety level three (BSL-3) viruses, the Gehrke Lab is studying pathologies of SARS-CoV-2 at the Ragon Institute. Employing virology techniques such as titer determination — analyzing the number of infectious particles present per unit volume — the Gehrke Lab is applying their expertise in flavivirus to study the novel coronavirus. 

Similar to studying flavivirus, Gehrke and his lab members are closely mirroring human physiology in their research, as well as using other methods, such as microscopy imaging and cytokine analysis. Through these established research methods, Gehrke is hopeful that they will be able to yield a quicker result.

In addition to other diagnostic techniques — including nucleic acid and PCR methods — the Gehrke Lab has developed a direct viral antigen test, lateral flow chromatography, which “detects the virus itself using antibodies that recognize the viral particles.” Believing that this technique has high potential, Gehrke and his lab aim to make it available to the public, including places that do not have a lot of resources and power, so that people can self-diagnose quickly, periodically, and simply.

Because SARS-CoV-2 is a BSL-3 agent, greater challenges arise than when conducting ordinary research. In order to prevent potential inhalation of any infectious materials, Gehrke described safety measures being implemented: “Conducting experimental work at Biosafety Level 3 is challenging because researchers work in a full-body Tyvek suit with several pairs of gloves. The head is protected by a helmet-like covering wherein filtered air is delivered through a battery-powered positive pressure pump.” Another challenge is the limited availability of human samples for efficient diagnostic testing. Therefore, Gehrke explained that despite the mass number of people infected, connections between clinics and labs aren’t yet well-established to effectively test potential treatments on people. 

On the bright side, Gehrke noted that the family of coronaviruses has been studied for a long time and that while researchers cannot yet “extrapolate from the pathophysiology of 2003 SARS-CoV-1 to describe 2019 SARS-CoV-2,” there will be similarities to establish better foundations in their research. Moreover, to cope with the challenges of the current pandemic, the National Institute of Health, government agencies, and various consortiums are putting efforts into supplying resources. Not only are numerous researchers investigating COVID-19, but they are also better collaborating and sharing data to reduce redundancy and increase efficiency. 

Countless people have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, whether financially, politically, socially, and academically. Fortunately, there are numerous researchers, including Gehrke and his lab members, hoping to make a difference in this time of crisis.