Researchers at the University of Louisville have received $5.8 million in two grants from the National Institutes of Health to expand their work to better understand and prevent immune system dysregulation responsible for acute respiratory distress, the condition responsible for serious illness and death in some COVID-19 patients. A separate $306,000 NIH Small Business Innovation Research grant supports early testing of a compound developed at UofL as a potential treatment.
The three grants combined total $6.1 million.
During the pandemic, health care providers worked tirelessly to treat patients who became seriously ill with COVID-19. Some of those patients developed severe lung disease known as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) due to an excessive response of the immune system often called cytokine storm.
As they treated these critically ill patients, physicians and other providers at UofL Health shared their clinical insights and patient samples with researchers at UofL to discover the cause of the immune system overresponse.
“At one time we had over 100 patients with COVID in the hospital. Once they were on a ventilator, mortality was about 50%. We were looking at this issue to see why some people would do well while some developed bad lung disease and did not do well or died,” said Jiapeng Huang, anesthesiologist with UofL Health and professor and vice chair of the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine in the UofL School of Medicine.
The UofL researchers, led by immunologist Jun Yan, discovered that a specific type of immune cells, low-density inflammatory neutrophils, became highly elevated in some COVID-19 patients whose condition became very severe. This elevation signaled a clinical crisis point and increased likelihood of death within a few days due to lung inflammation, blood clotting and stroke. Their findings were published in 2021 in JCI Insight.
With the new NIH funding, Yan is leading research to build on this discovery with deeper understanding of what causes a patient’s immune system to respond to an infection in this way and develop methods to predict, prevent or control the response.
“Through this fruitful collaboration, we now have acquired NIH funding for basic and translational studies and even progress toward commercialization of a potential therapy,” Yan said. “That’s why we do this research – eventually we want to benefit the patients.”
Yan, chief of the UofL Division of Immunotherapy in the Department of Surgery, a professor of microbiology and immunology and a senior member of the Brown Cancer Center, will lead the new research, along with Huang and Silvia M. Uriarte, university scholar and professor in the Department of Oral Immunology and Infectious Diseases in the UofL School of Dentistry.
“COVID-19 continues to spotlight the impactful synergy between the clinical and research teams at the University of Louisville,” said Jason Smith, UofL Health chief medical officer. “Innovation is in the DNA of academic medicine. We collaborate to provide each patient the best options for prevention and treatment today, while developing the even better options for tomorrow.”
In addition to two research grants of $2.9 million each awarded directly to UofL, a $306,000 grant to a startup company will support early testing of a compound developed in the lab of UofL Professor of Medicine Kenneth McLeish that shows promise in preventing the dangerous cytokine storm while allowing the neutrophils to retain their ability to kill harmful bacteria and viruses. The compound, DGN-23, will be tested by UofL and Degranin Therapeutics, a startup operated by McLeish, Yan, Huang, Uriarte and Madhavi Rane, associate professor in the Department of Medicine.
“This is one more example of how UofL has led the charge in finding new and innovative ways to detect, contain and fight COVID-19 and other potential public health threats,” said Kevin Gardner, UofL’s executive vice president for research and innovation. “This team’s new research and technology could help keep people healthy and safe here and beyond.”
The knowledge gained through these studies may benefit not only COVID-19 patients, but those with other conditions in which immune dysregulation can occur, such as other types of viral and bacterial pneumonia and autoimmune diseases, and patients undergoing cancer immunotherapy and organ transplantation.
Grant 1 – $2.9 million, four-year grant to UofL. Investigators will study the new subset of neutrophils Yan identified to better understand how they contribute to acute respiratory distress and clotting. They also will determine whether a novel compound will prevent these complications. They will use lab techniques and studies with animal models that allow for manipulation of certain conditions that cannot be done in human subjects.
Grant 2 – $2.9 million, five-year grant to UofL. This work examines a more comprehensive landscape to characterize different subsets of neutrophils and measure their changes over the course of COVID-19 disease progression and how neutrophils contribute to immune dysfunction.
Grant 3 – $306,000, one-year grant to Degranin Therapeutics and UofL for early testing of DGN-23, a compound developed at UofL, to determine its effectiveness in preventing or reducing immune dysregulation.
This research is supported by the National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute under award numbers R01HL158779 and R43HL169129 and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under award number R01AI172873. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
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About the University of Louisville
In 2023, the University of Louisville celebrates its quasquibicentennial, the 225th anniversary of the 1798 beginnings of higher education in Louisville. One of the nation’s first city-owned, public universities, UofL today is a vital ecosystem that creates thriving futures for students, our community and society. As one of only 79 universities in the United States to earn recognition by the Carnegie Foundation as both a Research 1 and a Community Engaged university, we impact lives in areas of student success and research and innovation, while our dynamic connection with our local and global communities provides unparalleled opportunities for students and citizens both. The university serves as an engine that powers Metro Louisville and the commonwealth and as a classroom for UofL’s more than 23,000 students, who benefit from partnerships with top employers and a wide range of community service opportunities. To learn more, visit louisville.edu.