The LOOP Zurich has decided in July 2020 to fund COVID-19 projects that have been positively evaluated by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and meet the central LOOP criteria (precision medicine, biomedical informatics, clinical research). Each project has a corresponding extension part that complements the original SNSF-proposal. These projects aim to establish biomarkers for early detection of severe cases, to gather data on gender specific differences in COVID-19, to develop novel vaccination methods or to learn more about the Long-COVID syndrome.
This initiative is supported by generous donations from the Vontobel Foundation and Helmut Horten Foundation.
I. Burkhardt Becher: «Dissecting the complex interplay between SARS-CoV-2 and the immune system for identification of COVID-19- and hyper-inflammation-specific immune signatures»
Already this project made early detection of severe cases possible. Burkhardt Becher and his research team discovered a biomarker, that can predict if a COVID-19 infection will lead to severe disease progression. For treating physicians this means that they can establish if a patient is likely to recover soon or if severe disease progression is likely. This facilitates commencing targeted medication at an early stage and planning intensive care capacities more efficiently.
A team around Dr. med. Stefanie Kreutmair has since then demonstrated, pre-existing conditions, particularly kidney-related ones, can indicate severe outcomes. Using computer-assisted analyses, the team was able to evaluate data from over fifty COVID-19 patients and 121 samples, thereby proving that individuals with kidney diseases had a significantly higher risk of developing a severe course of COVID-19 compared to others. The risk was even 16 times higher than in patients without pre-existing conditions and 8 times higher than in patients with other pre-existing conditions.
Additionally, another tean at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Experimental Immunology is working on another branch of immunological research: understanding the immune system’s response to vaccinations. In total, there are 16 combinations in which different vaccines were used for the first and second doses. The samples are being examined at the single-cell level using flow cytometry, and then the data is analyzed using computer algorithms. The researchers anticipate new insights that could significantly influence future vaccination strategies.
More on this project: University Medicine Zurich
II. Catherine Gebhard: «Development of a gender-sensitive risk assessment tool to predict short- and long-term outcomes of COVID-19 (COVID-GEnder: COGEN)»
Women have a higher risk of suffering Long-COVID symptoms, whereas men are more likely to have a severe disease course with COVID-19 and die more often due to a COVID-19 infection. Catherine Gebhard and her team have come to this conclusion after analyzing data from thousands of patients and conducting patient interviews to find out more about the socio-economic background and the socio-cultural gender role. In women their socio-cultural role involving more domestic work and childcare seems to be a risk factor. Especially for Long-COVID this study could offer insights into preventive measures to be taken, such as stress reduction in the domestic environment.
More on this project: University Medicine Zurich
This study has been published in the scientific journal «Intensive Care Medicine»
III. Cornel Fraefel: «Defeating SARS-CoV-2 with B. subtilis biofilms»
Under the leadership of Prof. Cornel Fraefel a research team based at the University of Zurich and the ETH Zurich plans to develop a novel vaccination method against the Corona virus SARS-COV-2. This vaccination could be administered as a pill and not as an injection. This procedure would significantly facilitate the vaccination and make it more comfortable. Unlike standard vaccinations, which use parts of foreign virus parts, a bacterium, which naturally occurs in the microbiome is employed: the Bacillus subtilis. The bacteria can be «programmed» for SARS-COV-2 and can induce an immune reaction in the small intestine, thus achieving protection against SARS-COV-2. This novel and convenient method may also well be of use against other diseases.
IV. Roland Martin: «SARS-CoV-2-Induced Immune Alterations and their Role in Post-COVID Syndrome»
This project addresses the Post-COVID syndrome. Every third person infected with SARS-COV-2 suffers from this syndrome, which massively impacts quality of life. Lingering and constant fatigue and a reduction in cognitive and intellectual capabilities are only two of the symptoms, that can cause great distress. Those afflicted struggle to regain some degree of normalcy. This can be achieved through a wide array of rehabilitative and medicative measures. The research team of Prof. Roland Martin aim to discover the cause of this syndrome in order to develop treatment methods. They assume that the immune reaction against SARS-COV-2 leads to a long-term destabilization of the immune system. If they could ascertain exactly how this happens, vaccination selection could be optimized and thus enable long awaited individual treatment options for Long-COVID