U of T precision medicine initiative launches task force to fight COVID-19

April 21, 2020 by Eileen Hoftyzer

The University of Toronto’s precision medicine research initiative, PRiME, has launched a new task force mobilizing research to tackle the immense challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Led by University Professor Shana Kelley from the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, the PRiME Task Force on Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics for COVID-19 brings together researchers with expertise in a variety of fields to develop new diagnostic tools and therapeutics.

“Biomedical research is absolutely critical to how we combat and recover from these types of crises,” Kelley says. “The key tools that are going to help us with this pandemic and those that arise in the future are better diagnostics, new therapies and vaccines. This is what the biomedical research community has to offer.”

Launched in the spring of 2019, PRiME taps into U of T’s world-class research – in the Faculty of Pharmacy, Faculty of Medicine, Faculty of Arts & Science and Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering – and fosters collaborations to address large-scale research questions. With more than 60 scientists and 100 students and trainees aligning their efforts in a few key areas of precision medicine research, PRiME is meant to accelerate the discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat a number of diseases.

Now, they are turning their attention to an urgent global health challenge. As the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak became apparent over the last couple of months, Kelley, along with Associate Director Stéphane Angers and Director of Strategy and Partnerships Christine Misquitta, talked to PRiME members about their research plans and potential projects related to COVID-19.

“These are people who can’t stop thinking about scientific research and how it may be applied to monitor and treat diseases,” says Kelley. “So, when something like this comes up, it’s very natural for us to think about ways that we can pivot our research operations and try to make an impact.”

The resulting research plan is a grassroots effort by the researchers and has three objectives: produce new diagnostic tools, develop new therapeutics and understand the biology of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. PRiME scientists are actively collaborating with colleagues based at U of T’s affiliated hospitals including the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the Hospital for Sick Children.

Many of the task force’s research projects have already begun – with precautions to ensure physical distancing and safe work conditions – and research teams will work closely with clinicians in order to have results translated into the clinic in a relatively short time frame. New diagnostic tools could be approved by Health Canada by early summer through an expedited review process, and researchers looking for new therapeutics are focusing on U.S Food and Drug Administration- or Health Canada-approved agents so that they can be deployed quickly.

“If something is going to make an impact on the first wave of COVID-19, it needs to go into the clinic within the coming weeks,” says Kelley. “It’s difficult to take something from research to clinic in that amount of time, but we do have researchers fast-tracking their efforts on a relevant timescale.”

Leo Chou, assistant professor in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and a member of the task force, is using his team’s expertise in computational design, materials chemistry and molecular engineering to increase capacity to test people for the virus. His team is working on a new streamlined diagnostic test that uses nucleic acids to help detect viral RNA to provide an alternative and more stable set of reagents relative to the enzymes used in current diagnostic tests. They are working to minimize the number of steps involved in the test and find ways to couple the detection of viral RNA with a material change, such as a change in colour, that would make it easier to see test results with the naked eye. These developments would make testing faster and easier to do – both of which would increase testing capacity.

As a researcher working in basic science, Chou says that initiatives such as PRiME and the task force are essential to accessing resources that can move research forward more quickly.

“One bottleneck to many developing efforts right now is access to patient samples,” he says. “A platform such as PRiME is in a unique position to co-ordinate large resource-sharing centres where members can deposit, share and access common reagents, protocols and knowledge related to COVID-19 detection and treatment.”

Kelley says that she has been encouraged by the response from PRiME researchers, as even those with no expertise related to coronaviruses have thought about how their research can reduce the impact of COVID-19 during this unprecedented challenge.

“This is just a completely different way of doing science. As researchers with deep expertise in specific disciplines, we don’t typically pivot to new areas like this,” she says. “But I think so many of us have realized that we have the biggest crisis of our lifetime on our hands, and we need to be helping to find a solution now.”