COVID-19 Pilot Grant Program Awardees

The COVID-19 Pilot Grant Program launched at the end of March in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. In a very short time, CTSI received an overwhelming amount of interest from the research community:

  • A total of 157 projects applied to the grant program.
  • Of those projects, there were 590 unique investigators representing 14 different Pitt schools and over 90 Pitt departments, divisions, centers and institutes.
  • Forty-six different universities were represented on the teams.

Catch Up with the Awardees!

On April 16, 2020, CTSI awarded $900,000 to 17 studies to address different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the button below to read a summary of each project and learn what they've accomplished since receiving the award, the ways their work has impacted the pandemic, and the outcomes and next steps for their studies.

Funding for the projects was provided by the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research, and the DSF Charitable Foundation, which contributed $350,000.

Below you will find the list of awardees and hear about each project in their own words.

Recipients of $100,000 Award

SARS-CoV-2 clinical and community serosurveillance
“We developed two critical SARS-Co-V-2 serologic assays to quantitate human immune responses to SARS-CoV-2. This work allows for distinguishing infected individuals from vaccinated individuals for epidemiology studies of COVID and has enabled numerous other COVID and pre-clinical vaccine studies by UPMC and Pitt investigators.” - Anita McElroy, MD, PhD, Paul Duprex, PhD, Alan Wells, MD, DMS

Recipients of $50,000 Awards

Biomarkers for Predicting Viral Pneumonia Severity
“We have created an extensive bank of patient samples infected with COVID-19 and begun analyses of biomarkers. This is critical for developing a diagnostic blood test that will help identify which patients will progress to severe viral disease. It will also inform the need for vaccination of adults previously infected with SARS-CoV-2.” - John Alcorn, PhD

Cellular Mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 Infection
“Our early data suggest that mucins and their sialylation play a role in airway epithelial cell responses to COVID-19 infection, which is critical for understanding the role of pre-existing risk factors such as male sex, hypertension, chronic lung disease and asthma in influencing outcomes.” - Sally Wenzel, MD and Xiuxia Zhou, PhD

Coronavirus and Lung Microbiome Interactions
“We have shown that critically ill patients with COVID-19 have much higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers compared to moderately ill inpatients, making the former group most likely to benefit from immunomodulatory therapies. The work conducted thus far has offered us important lessons with implications beyond COVID-19.” - Georgios Kitsios, MD, PhD

COVID-19 Neurologic Manifestations
“We are the largest global consortium studying the neurological impacts of COVID-19, a collaboration that now includes more than 200 medical centers in more than 30 countries.  Our findings contribute to the generation of global guidelines including the WHO COVID-19 guidance.” - Sherry Chou, MD

COVID-Insight Triage and Monitoring Tool
“Our project has moved forward the understanding of real-world conditions in the clinical environment where video-based vital signs assessment will be deployed for the current or future pandemics” - David Salcido, PhD

Determinants of COVID-19 clinical outcomes
“We discovered that proinflammatory cytokines secreted by fat cells were elevated in COVID-19 patients, which is key in beginning to elucidate the link between obesity and COVID-19 disease severity. We are the first group to demonstrate that human adipose tissue can be infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” - Christian Fernandez, PhD and Ernesto Marques, Jr. MD, PhD

Generation of transgenic hACE2 knock-in mice
“We have generated a novel animal model that will have an impact to test novel vaccines and therapeutics against SARS-CoV2 and more broadly to all the viruses that use hACE2 as an entry receptor” - Andrea Gambotto, MD, Lou Falo, MD, PHD, Mark Shlomchik, MD, PhD, William Klimstra, PhD

Impact of Maternal COVID-19 Infection on Newborns
“The results of our work provide reassurance against the risks of vertical transmission from SARS-CoV2 to the infant with data thus far showing no evidence of viral transmission, reassuring neurodevelopmental outcomes of children exposed in utero.” - Anne-Marie Rick, MD, MPH and Judy Martin, MD

Lung-Targeting SARS-CoV-2 Therapeutic
“Our work to refine the chemical conjugation of siRNA to lung targeting peptides has led to enhanced custom peptide synthesis and has the potential to improve delivery of potent therapeutic agents against respiratory viral infections.” - Raymond Frizzell, PhD

Modeling Strategies for the COVID-19 Pandemic
“We successfully enhanced our COVID-19 modeling tool to evaluate mitigation and social distancing strategies, as well as evaluate the best methods to combat vaccine hesitancy. Our work from this award was leveraged to secure CDC funding to further incorporate multiple strains of COVID-19 into the model and enhance the understanding of spread in children.” - Mark Roberts

Pediatric Epidemiology SARS-CoV-2 antibody response
“Our work was the first SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence study specifically in the pediatric population with important implications for back-to-school decisions, pediatric testing for prior asymptomatic exposure, and outcomes for immune compromised children.” - Sarah Wheeler PhD, Glenn Rapsinski, MD, PhD, Megan Culler Freeman, MD, PhD

SARS-CoV-2 Cellular Imaging System
“We successfully engineered a SARS-CoV-2 reporter virus system that could demonstrate infection but not produce new viruses, allowing us to perform imaging studies and study drug candidates at a reduced biosafety level. This expands our research capacity and allows the design of improved therapies to inhibit and prevent COVID-19 infection.” - Zandrea Ambrose, PhD

SARS-CoV-2 Immune Escape Variants in Treatment
“Our project led to the discovery of a monoclonal antibody more effective in neutralizing currently circulating variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This has a significant implication for developing booster vaccines and therapeutic approaches for combating newly emerging viruses to ensure pandemic control and elimination.” - Jana Jacobs, PhD

SARS-CoV-2 Prevention Spray
“We have developed and characterized an intranasal spray as a preventative against COVID-19 and plan to advance the product to the clinic within this year. The impact of this work has potential application for preventative treatments against endemic respiratory viruses and future pandemics.” - Lisa Rohan, Ph.D. and Sravan Patel, PhD

Therapeutic nanobodies for SARS-CoV-2
“This was an unprecedented study in which we identified nanobodies that are more stable and effective at neutralizing the SARS-CoV-2 virus than human antibodies. We are now developing an inhalable mist with nanobodies to deliver antiviral therapy directly into the lungs as a convenient and cost-effective treatment option.” - Yi Shi, PhD

Therapy for COVID-19 Induced ARDS
“We administered mesenchymal stem cells (MSC)-derived extracellular vesicles in patients having COVID-19 pneumonia induced Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and found no infusion-related adverse events. Understanding the impact of this treatment has potential for developing anti-inflammatory strategies that limit acute lung injury.” - Luis Ortiz, MD