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Jennifer Martinez working in her lab.
COVID-19 Bringing Experts Together: Research News from Northern Arizona University
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, researchers at NAU persist in their fight against the virus using advanced scientific knowledge and know-how—and are leveraging their relationships across disciplines and within our communities to get results.

COVID-19 research is bringing our physicists, biochemists and pathogen scientists together to develop new vaccines and testing methods based on nanotechnology. Our data scientists are collaborating to harness the power of big data to analyze traffic patterns and what they reveal about the spread of the virus. Our public health experts are working with diverse members of our rural communities to study how disparities affect caregivers, developing solutions to help them. And our mechanical engineers are joining forces with computer scientists to manufacture face shields right in their labs.

Read on to discover some of the most recent developments in NAU’s COVID-19 research activity. I am pleased to share them with you.


Rita Hartung Cheng, PhD
President, Northern Arizona University
Contents
NAU Research Team Studies Effects of COVID-19, Health Disparities on Caregivers of People with ADRD
Julie Baldwin standing in Applied Research and Development building. Sixteen million family members in the US are caregivers for the more than 6 million people living with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (ADRD). For many caregivers in rural areas such as northern Arizona, health disparities prevent them from accessing the healthcare and support services they need. COVID-19-related isolation is adding to their burden, potentially contributing to their stress, anxiety and depression, and adversely affecting their physical health.

To address the heightened health risks
these caregivers face, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative (SHERC), a grant-funded initiative of Northern Arizona University’s Center for Health Equity Research (CHER), received a one-year, $250,000 administrative supplemental grant from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers will study the unique needs of caregivers of persons with ADRD living in northern Arizona, identifying how health and caregiver support resources have changed during COVID-19 and how family caregivers are coping with current COVID-19 related caregiving demands.

“We are interested in the health of diverse caregivers in northern Arizona and the resources they use and need to maintain their physical, emotional and mental well-being,” said NAU Regents’ Professor Julie Baldwin, principal investigator of the study and director of CHER. “Our long-term goal is to develop programs that provide support to caregivers and reflect the unique assets of populations in northern Arizona.”

Co-investigators on the study are Heather J. Williamson, assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, Michael J. McCarthy, associate professor in the Department of Social Work, Dorothy J. Dunn, associate professor in the School of Nursing and Evie Garcia, associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology.

To conduct the study, titled “A Multilevel Examination of Health Equity among Ethnic and Rural ADRD Caregivers,” the researchers are currently recruiting family caregivers of individuals with ADRD to participate in focus groups and surveys.

The team will produce a report on the healthcare and social support resources that are available to caregivers in northern Arizona, and participants will receive personalized maps and information on what resources are close to them. Researchers will use results from the project to inform culturally based programs for Hispanic/Latino, Native American and rural caregivers and to promote future policies, practices and research initiatives that support them.

“We hope that community members will find these county-specific reports of caregiver resources helpful as a tool to either advocate for resources that are lacking and to know what things are available to them that they might not have known about previously,” Williamson said.  
If you are a family caregiver of someone with ADRD living in northern Arizona (in Apache, Navajo, Coconino, Gila, Yavapai or Mohave County) and want to participate in a focus group or survey or both, please contact Rachel Bacon at Rachel.Bacon@nau.edu or (928) 523-5794.
Miguel José Yacamán working on a computer in his lab.
NAU Scientists Form Interdisciplinary Team to Develop Innovative COVID-19 Test from Physics-Based Technology
One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the lack of testing needed to detect and trace infections—and without adequate testing, government officials do not have the data they need to make the best possible decisions in the interest of public health.

In addition to being in short supply, most currently available tests use biochemicals that are expensive and difficult to produce, require long turnaround times for test results and produce a high number of false negative results. And although newer testing methods that detect antibodies in the blood are rapidly coming online, many scientists and physicians question their efficacy.

NAU professor Miguel José Yacamán, a physicist and materials scientist in the Center for Materials Interfaces in Research and Applications (¡MIRA!), has assembled an interdisciplinary team to develop a new test technology that promises to overcome all these challenges. The project was recently awarded a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding program. Although the team has one year to develop the new test, José Yacamán plans to achieve this goal even sooner.

The team will develop the new test by applying concepts from physics, not biochemistry, José Yacamán explains. They will focus on recent discoveries in the emerging fields of nanotechnology, plasmonic nanoparticles and 2-D materials.

“The project team will use non-traditional techniques to detect virus in infected patients. We will develop an alternative method based on recent advances in physics related to the interaction of light with matter,” he said.

The method, Single Molecule Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SM-SERS), will detect the S proteins of the SARs-Cov-2 virus, which participate in infection at the cellular level. “The ability of SM-SERS to detect as little as one molecule of protein will enable healthcare professionals to detect infection early and follow up with patients who recover from the illness.”

José Yacamán will work in collaboration with two ¡MIRA! colleagues, associate professor Andy Koppisch, a biochemist, and associate professor of practice Rob Kellar, a biomedical engineer; and with Regents’ Professor Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist, and professor Dave Wagner, a disease ecologist, both with NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI).

José Yacamán has already demonstrated success with physics-based methods to test for breast cancer by employing surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy to detect glycoproteins and sialic acid. The method is currently in the final approval stage for commercial use.

“In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it was a natural extension to apply the same techniques,” he said, “but it will require the expertise of our PMI colleagues, who are growing the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their labs, to succeed.”

Keim, PMI executive director, underscored the potential for this interdisciplinary partnership. He noted, “Major advances in science almost always occur at the interface between disciplines, and this is a great example. I think that this work between ¡MIRA! and PMI could be a game changer in our fight against COVID-19.”

“This project is a joint effort between researchers in ¡MIRA! and PMI,” said ¡MIRA! director and professor Jennifer Martinez. “It shows the power of interdisciplinary work for creating new ideas and new funding opportunities—and, most importantly, the importance of having centers of excellence to drive new research for NAU.”

“If successful, our research will be the first step in developing a method based on physics that will be fast and inexpensive, with high sensitivity and specificity and a low percentage of false negatives,” said José Yacamán. “This test will be a much more precise and reliable method than what is currently available to detect infections.”
Listen to this KNAU interview with Paul Keim of PMI.
From Concept to Product in One Day: NAU’s Wearable Informatics Lab Pivots to Design and Produce 3-D Printed Face Shields in
Record Time

Kyle Winfree wearing PPE that his team created with 3-D printing.A team from NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems is leading an effort to supply regional and tribal healthcare providers with face shields during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In normal times, the focus of assistant professor Kyle N. Winfree’s Wearable Informatics Lab is on wearable technologies for health, assessment and enabling people with physical disabilities to move. One of the ongoing projects is working with a club that designs and 3-D prints prosthetics for children who are missing limbs.

But we are now living in an unprecedented time. In response, Winfree has temporarily transformed his lab into a face shield fabrication enterprise. The two processes are similar, so the switch was easy. Using an open-source design listed on the National Institutes of Health website, Winfree is now printing face shields on 3-D printers from five NAU labs—his, labs run by SICCS faculty Fatemeh Afghah and Abolfazi Razi, and labs run by mechanical engineering faculty John Tester and Sarah Oman.

The collaboration enables them to print about 30 shields a day, with students volunteering their time to get the work done.

“We’re working on different ways to more reliably print these shields, but this 30-per-day is about the rate we expect with all five printers running as we move forward,” Winfree said.

The team has supplied more than 450 shields to local health care providers so far, many of whom are treating members of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe—including the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona, Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Center, Kayenta FD/PD/EMS, Navajo Chapters, Tuba City Medical Center, Hopi NSN, Winslow Medical Center and Navajo East.

The idea started with Winfree and doctoral student Felicity Escargaza. “Once we started talking about it, we realized this wasn’t just an idea; this was something we could put into place quickly,” Winfree said. “By the end of that day, she had a print in hand. We’re printing a slightly different mask now, but it’s important to note that we went from concept to product in about nine hours.”

The team is soliciting donations to print the shields. If you would like to donate to help support these face shields, please use this link to the NAU Foundation site. All funds donated between April 1 and July 30 will be used to support printing more shields.
See this related article in the Arizona Daily Sun.
Graph showing daily traffic the first 30-days of stay at home order compared to last 30 days when stay at home orders were lifted.
NAU Research Team Detects Major Shift in Relationship between State-By-State Traffic and COVID-19 Cases, Offers Insights into Effectiveness of Lockdowns During Pandemic
A research team at Northern Arizona University has been exploring the relationship between new data on daily traffic and the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States. The analysis shows that prior to the end of March 2020, US traffic activity—a useful proxy for a return to pre-COVID economic activity—declined rapidly as the number of COVID-19 cases increased. However, since that time, traffic activity and COVID-19 cases have been exhibiting strong regional patterns, with states such as California and Texas showing traffic increases followed by a rise in COVID-19 cases. Other states such as New York and New Jersey, by contrast, show a rise in traffic activity but a decline in COVID-19 cases.

“During March, the country appeared to move as one, with traffic activity declining dramatically as COVID-19 cases increased. From April, that began to break down. Now we see traffic activity increasing everywhere, but with a very different COVID-19 trend from state to state,” said lead research scientist Pawlok Dass, postdoctoral scholar in NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems.

The team used newly available traffic data from StreetLight, a platform that estimates the number of Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) using anonymized location data from smart phone and navigation devices. After aggregating the original county-scale data to the state-scale, the team combined the daily, state-scale VMT and COVID-19 statistics with daily COVID-19 data made available by The New York Times based on reports from state and local health agencies to explore to what extent traffic activity might act as a proxy for the spread of COVID-19.

“The availability of these types of mobility data have been one of the positive outcomes of this difficult period. Our ability to understand elements of human activity in response to this pandemic has been advanced significantly by data such as what we are getting from StreetLight,” said Dass.

In addition to the different state-by-state trends in relation to traffic activity, the state-by-state breakdown shows that some states show a strong time lag between traffic and COVID-19.

“In many states, traffic appears to be a leading indicator, increasing first, with COVID-19 cases rising after a delay of up to 11 days,” said professor Kevin Gurney, head of the NAU research group analyzing the data. “Notable exceptions to this are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts where, although traffic is gradually returning to ‘normal’, COVID-19 cases are steady or declining.”

The team speculated that states with increasing traffic but little increase in COVID-19 cases may offer insights on what policies or guidelines are showing the greatest success at keeping new COVID-19 cases low while emerging from lockdown.

The researchers caution that the analysis remains preliminary and is sensitive to the veracity
and comprehensiveness of testing and reporting. Final analysis will be included in a future scientific publication.
C. Todd French working in his lab.
NAU Pathogen Scientist Collaborates with Biotech Firm on Vaccine That Could Prevent and Treat COVID-19
C. Todd French, assistant professor of biology and leader of Northern Arizona University’s new COVID-19 Testing Service Center (CTSC), is working with scientists at Vault Pharma, an emerging biotechnology company, to test candidate vaccines against the novel coronavirus. Through a public-private partnership linking the company with UCLA, NAU and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, French is member of a collaborative team advancing the development of a vaccine that has the potential to treat the virus in addition to protecting against it.

Vault Pharma creates genetically modified versions of vaults—naturally occurring nanoparticles found inside every cell of the human body—that can be bioengineered and used as drug delivery devices. So small that they are measured in nanometers (one nanometer equals one billionth of a meter), vaults were first discovered in 1986 by a lab group led by Vault Pharma co-founder Leonard H. Rome, distinguished professor of biological chemistry and associate director of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA. Vault Pharma is designing its vault vaccine with the Rome Lab and the research team led by Jeff F. Miller, UCLA’s Fred Kavli Professor of NanoSystems Sciences and the director of CNSI.

“Vaults are unique, hollow, natural protein nanoparticles,” said French, “named for their barrel-like structure. They have tremendous potential as a vaccine delivery platform when loaded with vaccine antigens. I’ve been a proponent of the vault vaccine platform for a long time, and I’m excited that UCLA and Vault Pharma want to work with us at NAU.”

As with typical vaccines, the team’s vault-based strategy is intended to stop infection before it starts by activating the antibodies in a person’s immune system, which neutralize foreign microbes floating around in bodily fluids and tag them for elimination by immune cells. The researchers are choosing which coronavirus proteins to package inside vaults to stimulate the immune response.

Although the vault-based vaccine in development would not be the first line of defense against
the virus, it could be used against the disease after an initial vaccine has been developed
and distributed, and could represent a step toward blocking the outbreak of a similar virus
in the future.

The team at Vault Pharma has evidence suggesting that a vault-based vaccine could also work as a therapeutic. While the vault platform hasn’t yet been tested in humans, proof-of-concept studies indicate that vaults themselves don’t set off an immune attack but are readily internalized by multiple cells of the immune system.

Recruited by NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute from UCLA for his expertise, French is a veteran of Select Agent and high-containment pathogen science, and brings unique capabilities to PMI. The French Lab, housed at PMI, focuses on pathogen virulence mechanisms, pathogen ecology and developing new therapeutics.

“We established the CTSC at NAU to aid in the search for potential therapeutics that can inhibit the coronavirus in vitro. This summer, we will be bringing online the ability to test potential treatments and vaccines in COVID models, as well,” French said.
Learn more about undergraduate students working in NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute.
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