COVID-19 research and initiatives in LMP

Our motto “Investigating disease. Impacting health.” Has never been more important.

Laboratory medicine plays a vital role in the fight against COVID-19.

We conduct basic biomedical research, and with many of our researchers as clinicians in the major hospitals across Toronto, we can translate these findings into clinical practice.

From being the first to isolate the virus behind COVID-19, to running the laboratories that conduct most of the testing across Ontario, our people are playing a significant role. Read more about our significant findings in Our Covid-19 stories.

Our learners, from undergraduate students to MSc and PhD research candidates, and postgraduate trainees are heavily involved in many aspects of our research, ensuring the next generation of clinicians and researchers from LMP gain vital experiences.

The research projects mentioned below are just an indication of the COVID-19 related work in LMP and represent just a small amount of the research happening across the department.

The people linked below are LMP researchers and educators involved in the project in some way, which could involve teams across U of T and the wider global community.

Keeping us safe

Hospital laboratories affiliated with LMP are conducting tens of thousands of tests a day for Ontario. See our story: Microbiologists: the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

Researchers are working to improve testing accuracy and efficiency.

Dr Allison McGeer contributed to a peer-reviewed article in CMAJ: Rapid antigen screening of asymptomatic people as a public health tool to combat COVID-19 (PDF)

More research is being done in Genome sequencing to assist contact tracing, including tracking genome variations across the globe (Dr Bo Wang) so we can monitor how the virus evolves.

Antibodies are being tested to understand how long they last (Dr Allison McGeer), and how widespread they are (Dr Maria Pasic). Some researchers are studying specific groups like hospital workers, U of T students (Dr Jennifer Taher) and in school-age children (Dr Khosrow Adeli).

Various strands of vaccine development (Dr Rob Kozak, Dr Heyu Ni) and testing to improve safety and effectiveness (Dr Jim Hu) are underway. 

The first Candian-made vaccine is now undergoing clinical trials and involves the research of Dr Mario OstrowskiDr Samira Mubareka, Dr Rob Kozak and Dr Michael Pollanen.

Dr Donald Branch is working to increase our ability to mount an immune response to COVID-19.

Mask testing has been strained due to lack of capacity. Dr James Scott is part of a team looking at increasing mask testing capacity to provide vital information about mask efficiencies and to assist the rapid development of new masks.

We are learning how COVID-19 travels through the air in certain healthcare settings and under different treatment conditions, such as nasal prongs or ventilators, so healthcare workers and patients can be better protected from infection (Dr Samira Mubareka).

One limitation in research and treatment development is access to the virus: Dr Donald Branch is working on developing a model of COVID-19 that requires a lower biosafety class so more labs, who don’t have access to high-level safety containment (CL3), can study treatments for the virus.

Understanding the virus

Dr Samira Mubareka and Dr Robert Kozak were the first to isolate the virus which was a vital step in understanding and treating COVID-19.

Dr Karim Mekhail’s team is studying how the coronaviruses MERS-CoV, hCoV-229E, and SARS-CoV-2 hijack the protein synthesis machinery of human cells so treatments can be more targeted.

Dr Theo Moraes is involved in several studies using human airway epithelial cell models to understand disease pathogenesis and study changes in genes and proteins.

In an effort to improve patient treatment and outcomes, researchers are working hard to understand how COVID-19 causes complications in the lungs by creating ex vivo 3-D humanized lung models (Dr Ian Rogers).

Dr JoAnne McLaurin is studying the effects of COVID related to brain complications and Dr Clinton Robbins and Dr Slava Epelman are characterizing the inflammatory and cardiac effects of COVID-19.

Therapeutics

Several ways to treat COVID-19 patients are being researched, such as Convalescent plasma therapy (Dr Jeannie CallumDr Katerina Pavenski, Dr Christine Cserti-Gazdewich, Dr Yulia Lin, Nadine Shehata and Jacob Pendergrast). Questions include which plasma donors are most effective and whether convalescent plasma reduces the number of patients needing intubation/ventilation and saves lives.

Some patients recover quickly, and some deteriorate. Dr Jennifer Taher and Jordan Lerner-Ellis are part of team trying to understand why this happens by studying genetic differences and immune responses. They hope to identify a set of patient characteristics to identify who will develop severe symptoms.

Meanwhile, Dr Mario Ostrowski, Dr Samira Mubareka and Dr Allison McGeer have made progress in understanding why COVID patients have more severe inflammation and lung tissue damage than patients suffering from regular seasonal influenza virus. Dr Warren Lee is developing treatments for those with virus-induced acute lung injury.

Dr Kevin Kain is part of a multi-country study of new triage tools to identify which patients will go on to deteriorate over a 3 - 4 week period.

Can Zinc and Vitamin D help against COVID-19? Researchers are conducting trials in India to find out (Dr Kevin Kain).

Education

There is a huge impact on education in medical and scientific fields due to COVID-19.

Dr Carlo Hojilla is investigating alternatives to traditional education modalities, specifically the impact of COVID-19 on pathology and Lab workloads.

Dr Lusia Sepiashvili is part of a team who have developed a peer-reviewed adaptive learning course on COVID-19 cytokine storms which is available free of charge globally. (Cytokine storms are where the body starts to attack its own cells and tissues rather than just fighting off the virus. High levels of cytokines indicate a poor prognosis in COVID-19.) Access the free course" Coronavirus Cytokine Storms.

How COVID-19 affects us

COVID-19 can exasperate some risks people already face and researchers are examining how it affects those pregnant in low-income settings in Kenya and Africa, who are at risk of HIV and Malaria (Dr Kevin Kain).

Researchers are studying how individuals and families across Canada have been impacted directly by COVID-19 and indirectly by pandemic-related social and economic upheaval (Dr Theo Moraes).

A group of MHSc students from the Translational Research Program are working with high school students to develop social media content to influence behaviour and attitudes towards COVID-19 public health messaging.