In every newscast, in every newspaper, and in countless social media posts since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, two organizations have dominated the discussion: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). But a name more familiar to those of us in East Texas has consistently been on the lips and crossing the desks of COVID-19 researchers worldwide: The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.
UTHealth Science Center at Tyler has been at the forefront of our local and regional efforts to slow the spread of the disease and to “flatten the curve,” slowing the rate of spread to prevent overwhelming our health care resources. But the institution’s efforts haven’t stopped there.
Researchers with the university’s School of Medical and Biological Sciences have been actively working on diagnostic tools to identify people with the virus, treatments to help those who already have the disease, and a vaccine to prevent the spread of COVID–19 in the future.
Public health experts with the university’s School of Community and Rural Health have also worked to get healthcare providers and first responders the resources they need to safely help those who may have the disease. In addition, these community, environmental and occupational health specialists have developed practical resources to help employers and workers better understand how COVID–19 spreads, along with decision-making tools to make the process of reopening after quarantine safer.
UT Health Science Center at Tyler is led by President Kirk A. Calhoun, MD, FACP. He says he is extremely proud of how the various components of the institution have stepped up in response to the pandemic. “This university is sometimes referred to as one of the best kept secrets in East Texas,” Dr. Calhoun said. “Of course, we are not happy about COVID–19 being here, or anywhere for that matter. But the fact is, it is here,” he continued, “and the many ways our team has responded quickly and creatively to address the unique needs of our region has made our value significantly more obvious to many more people.”
Two groups–biomedical researchers and community health professionals–have led the UT Health Science Center at Tyler response to COVID–19.
IDENTIFYING THOSE INFECTED WITH THE VIRUS
Guohua Yi, PhD, is investigating the development of a COVID–19 diagnostic test that could be conducted faster, more efficiently and with greater accuracy than current methods being used. This project will identify an optimal fragment of a protein that binds COVID–19 and will be added to the structure of a carrier protein developed by Dr. Yi. The protein incorporating the virus-binding fragment will be used to build a new test that has the advantages of requiring small amounts of samples, potentially greater accuracy and being adaptable for high throughput.
Dr. Yi is a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded virologist who previously used gene-editing techniques to develop more effective treatments of multiple diseases and infections, including cancer and HIV.
NOVEL TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR A NOVEL VIRUS
Physicians and professors from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler and UT Health East Texas have joined forces to research several treatment options to help prevent the spread of and speed recovery from COVID–19. Leading these research efforts are Julie Philley, MD, and Megan Devine, MD. Both doctors are pulmonologists and serve on the teaching faculty in the institution’s Graduate Medical Education (GME) programs. In addition to research into the use of convalescent plasma, or plasma received from those who have recovered from COVID–19, these physician-researchers are leading one of only 100 teams in the country investigating a new antiviral drug called REGNCOV-2. “This medication could not only slow the spread of the virus, but accelerate the healing process,” Dr. Philley explained, “and it could be available much more quickly than any vaccine.” Dr. Devine noted that the development strategy for REGN-COV-2 is the same as that used to develop a treatment for Ebola that is currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “We were the first in Tyler to start with convalescent plasma,” Dr. Devine added. “Now, we are one of only 100 sites in the entire U.S. participating in this study.”
The researchers note that convalescent plasma is an important therapy, but it is only a small piece of the treatment puzzle. “The REG-COV-2 study offers a much more sophisticated and directed method for targeting the virus within the human body,” Devine said.
REPURPOSING EXISTING TREATMENTS TO ADDRESS COVID-19
Steven Idell, MD, PhD, is the senior vice president for research and dean of the university’s School of Medical Biological Sciences. Professor Sreerama Shetty, PhD, and Idell are researching the prospect of repurposing one of their previous developments for use in treating severe lung injuries associated with COVID–19 infections. They identified the treatment as a lung-scarring preventive in preclinical testing. The compound, called LTI-03, is the outcome of collaborative research spanning 15 years by Dr. Shetty and Dr. Idell in prevention and treatment measures for patients suffering from acute lung diseases and lung scarring. LTI-03 is now in phase I of clinical trial testing. If successful, their work could provide a pathway back to good health for lung injury patients, including those affected by COVID–19.
UT HEALTH SCIENCE CENTER’S INTERNATIONAL IMPACT
Research conducted in the university’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology is gaining recognition from international scientists conducting clinical trials into an agent to treat COVID–19. Anna K. Kurdowska, PhD, MS, joined the institution nearly three decades ago. She serves as the associate dean for research operations and compliance, the director of research, and is a full professor in the department. Her research focuses on the development of acute lung injury/acute respiratory distress syndrome (ALI/ARDS).
This published and patented research could soon provide an additional weapon to use in the battle against COVID–19. Originally, this research into an inhibitor of the Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) molecule was developed as a treatment for other types of lung injuries, including those caused by influenza. It now serves as a strong foundation for a possible treatment to protect against pulmonary injuries triggered by novel coronaviruses.
RESEARCHING A COVID-19 VACCINE
Collaborating with researchers in El Paso, Dr. Yi is also working to prevent the spread of the virus and save lives with the development of a vaccine. The joint effort hopes to deliver a vaccine that works by boosting the body’s natural immune protective response to COVID–19. Based on a new platform, their proposed vaccination will utilize antiviral antibodies that activate T-cell immunity. Should Dr. Yi’s work prove successful, his COVID–19 vaccine could advance the fight to manage the sweeping COVID–19 pandemic.
GUIDING THE COMMUNITY RESPONSE TO COVID-19
The School of Community and Rural Health is particularly well positioned to respond to a pandemic like COVID–19. In addition to offering master’s degrees in public health and health administration, the school is staffed by a team of physicians and educators with expertise in all aspects of community health.
Paul McGaha, DO, MPH, is an associate professor at UT Health Science Center at Tyler and serves as chair of the Department of Community Health. He uses the acronym PAT–for People, Airflow and Time–to help explain factors that contribute to the spread of COVID–19. “Individuals who are in outdoor settings, casually going by each other, in a grocery store for example, or anywhere where there’s good ventilation, where it’s not a crowded room and not a lot of people there, they’re much less likely to contract the illness in that setting,”
Dr. McGaha said. “But, if there’s any setting where there are just tons of people, it’s crowded, the air is kind of stale or not well ventilated, and you’re there for a long time,” he continued, “you’re much more likely to contract the illness.” Dr. McGaha says the importance of minimizing the time spent with groups of people in poorly ventilated environments becomes clear when you realize how easy this virus is to spread. “An individual who has the illness can spread 200 million particles in a cough or a sneeze,” he explained. “But it only takes about 1,000 particles to get sick if you inhale it.”
GETTING EAST TEXAS SAFELY BACK TO WORK
Members of the School of Community and Rural Health faculty have been proactive in creating tools to help business owners and workers in East Texas make better decisions about how to respond to COVID–19. The university’s COVID–19 Resources Portal–located at uthct. edu/COVID–19 – is just one of those assets. In addition to linking to information from national and international health authorities, the page includes tools to help the people of our region stay safe while returning to work. The “Getting East Texans Safely Back to Work” page includes videos to help the public better understand how COVID–19 is spread and how to use available tools, like social distancing and wearing a mask, to protect yourself and others.
The UT Health Science Center at Tyler’s Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences has developed resources that help East Texas employers determine what groups of employees should be allowed to return to work and when. Flowcharts for “Return to Work Screening” and “Employee Risk Stratification” give business owners and managers the easy-to-use tools they need to make quick decisions to protect their employees, their customers and themselves during and after the pandemic.
PROTECTING THE PROTECTORS
While some people and institutions responded to the shortage of N95 respirators for healthcare workers and first responders with consternation, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler responded with action. The institution located more than 60,000 of these medical-grade masks, but discovered they were out of date and, therefore, unsafe to use. Working with federal regulators, the School of Community and Rural Health faculty developed a process to bring these much-needed masks back into compliance, greatly reducing the risk of a shortage in our region.
TREATING THE WHOLE PERSON
Staying home to slow the spread of COVID–19 has presented an entirely new set of stresses for people who are accustomed to going to work or school for at least eight hours a day. Even for those who are considered “essential workers” or who have returned to work as the state of Texas reopens, requirements for social distancing and wearing masks have made the beginning of the return to normal seem anything but.
Ushimbra Buford, MD, is a psychiatry residency program director and an assistant professor of medicine at UT Health Science Center at Tyler. He says that, while these preventive measures are still necessary, he understands they can be hard on a person’s state of mind. “It appears to be that we have flattened the curve in a way, but we have to stay vigilant and stay on task with it,” Dr. Buford said. “This is a time to still keep a schedule. With children out of school, it’s still very important to make sure that some kind of schedule is being maintained.”
At a time when business owners are hit hard, Dr. Buford says they should stay proactive despite the circumstances. “Part of it is realizing this could not have been avoided, that this was something external. It was outside of their control,” he explained. “But they still can gain whatever mastery they can over the situation.” Dr. Buford says the best way to do that is by being proactive. “Call in and talk with your bank, your creditors and the vendors who serve you,” he suggested. “Explain the situation and try to work out deals where you pay a smaller amount now or defer payments going forward in the future.”
Dr. Buford anticipates that things will get better as society slowly returns to familiar patterns and habits, to whatever extent that can safely be done over time. In the meantime, he suggests staying in touch with those around you to pick up on signs of stress. “Do you become more irritable around family and friends? Do you become more depressed and withdrawn? Understand that is part of your response to stress,” Dr. Buford explained. “And so you are recognizing it, working on it, admitting to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m being irritable. Let me not snap at people.’”
IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL IT’S OVER
UT Health Science Center President Dr. Kirk Calhoun warns against being lulled into a false sense of security just because businesses are reopening and things seem to be getting back to normal. “COVID–19 is still with us and we’re going to have to continue a number of different actions to make sure that we all stay safe,” he warned. “Work from home if you can. Do not go in to work if you’ve been ill. If you have a fever, if you have a cough, if you’re sick, stay home.”
Dr. Calhoun stressed that the most effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 are the simplest, including:
• Maintain a six-foot distance in public between you and people with whom you do not live. • Wear a mask when in public so that you don’t unintentionally spread the disease if you have it and don’t know it. • Wash your hands frequently and vigorously for about 20 seconds each time. • If you need to cough or sneeze, do that into the crook of your elbow rather than onto your hands. • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
“As we begin to get back into a more normal pace,” Dr. Calhoun concluded, “let’s not forget to keep doing those things that have allowed us to open back up in the first place.”
Calhoun also noted that the COVID–19 pandemic has brought renewed interest in medicine and community health as a career option. The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler offers master’s degrees in biotechnology, public health and health administration for those seeking to advance or change their careers. Medical school graduates seeking to complete their training can enter residencies at the university in family medicine, general surgery, internal medicine, occupational medicine, rural family medicine, general psychiatry and rural psychiatry. Psychology internships and fellowships are also available.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has also been approved by The University of Texas System Board of Regents to create a medical school in Tyler and is currently in the planning and fundraising stages of that next step in the institution’s contributions to East Texas.
Visit uthct.edu for more information about The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.