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Waiting For a Savior

By Erin Biba

Curebase founder Tom Lemberg develops apps to help biotech companies conduct clinical trials digitally. (Ando)

Faith: Bay Area scientists are hard at work to find a cure and improve conditions under coronavirus.

It’s an unprecedented moment in the world of science. While other industries around the world are shutting down or struggling to keep their doors open, institutions that conduct scientific research are busier than ever — pivoting their work to focus on innovations and solutions for tackling coronavirus.

Being in one of the world’s top regions for science, organizations around the Bay Area are jumping in with everything they’ve got. When the news broke that coronavirus had become a pandemic, Tom Lemberg, founder of Curebase — a startup that provides a platform for scientists and biotech companies to conduct clinical trials digitally — says “we realized right away” that the company should pivot its work to focus on COVID-19 and provide their services pro bono.

“We knew our capabilities were a match, and we started socializing it with our partners, and everybody was interested right away. Health care all really wants to make an impact,” he says. “At first we thought that maybe it would just be us, but it’s very clear every startup is trying to make their contribution. … Anybody who can make an impact is trying to do so, and it’s inspiring to see.”

Indeed, the impact from research and innovation from the Bay Area alone is sure to be ground-breaking. The amount of work going on right now is staggering, and though it’s impossible to collect it all in one place, here are some highlights of the research currently happening in the Bay Area’s universities, national laboratories and biotech companies.

What’s in the works

Here are some of the key projects that local scientists and tech workers are tackling, from school closures to 3D printing.

Social sciences

Improving the use of telehealth for treating chronic conditions in low-income populations impacted by COVID-19. (B)

Mitigating the negative impacts of school closings one ducation, equity and mental health. (B)

Developing policy approaches to help homeless populations impacted by COVID-19. (B)

Developing a “pop-up laboratory” that will have the capacity to process 1,000 patient samples per day. (B)

Developing polymers that can eventually deliver antivirals to fight the COVID-19 virus. (S, LBNL)

Donating use of the Advanced Light Source (high-powered X-ray and infrared light) to academic and industry scientists to remotely access for studying the structure and protein components of the COVID-19 virus. (LBNL)

Measuring distress and well-being over the course of 12 months of those impacted by shelter-in-place orders. (S)

Biotech

Using smartwatches to track biological data of COVID-19 patients or those at risk for COVID-19 to measure the severity of their illness based on, for example, changes in heart rate. (S)

Developing an online database of antiviral drugs with proven or potential use against COVID-19 in a variety of studies, from cellular efficacy up to human clinical trials. (S)

Developing apps and providing assistance to scientific institutions and biotech companies to run COVID-19 clinical trials digitally and remotely. (C)

Disease surveillance and spread tracking and modeling

Developing a large model to study the asymptomatic population of the Bay Area (B, UCSF, IGI, CZB)

Developing a web-based app that that projects numbers of cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and ventilator needs to help cities manage response. (B)

Estimating real case numbers corrected for alack of testing and poor test performance. (B)

Developing tools to capture airborne particles to determine their level of infectiousness. (S)

Developing rapid genetic viral testing to detect the COVID-19 virus in less than 30 minutes. (LLNL)

COVID-19 molecular research, testing, treatment and vaccine developments

Using biosafety Level 3 labs to model COVID-19 infection for developing testing. (B)

Testing chemicals, compounds, and different substances that work on biological systems to find which best prevent the COVID-19 virus from replicating.(B)

Identifying alternative instruments and chemicals to be used in COVID-19 testing to optimize test performance.(LBNL)

Scaling up regional and national testing, developing novel methods for diagnosis, predicting the severity of COVID-19 and assessing immunity. (S)

Determining whether self-collected nasal swabs are as effective as swabs collected by medical professionals to see if patients will be able to eventually test themselves at home. A second team is developing an at-home kit for testing. (S)

Conducting clinical trials of the Ebola drug remdesivir in hospitalized patients including those with severe and moderate COVID-19. (S, GS)

Developing rapid-response, single-use ventilators to meet shortages. (S, CZB)

Conducting clinical trials of the hepatitis drug and antiviral lambda in COVID-19 outpatients to determine if it reduces hospitalizations and the duration of symptoms. (S)

Infecting mini-organs (tiny tissue cultures built using stem cells) with COVID-19 to determine how the virus infects lung and intestinal tissue. (S)

Undertaking research and development of alternative technologies and repurposing other technologies to replace ventilators. (LLNL)

3D-printing new swab designs to replace currently difficult-to-access swab supplies for COVID-19 testing. (LLNL)

Artificial intelligence

Using machine learning to develop a web-based tool that health care workers can use to input non-COVID-19 tests (such a blood cell count) to rule out possible COVID-19 infections. (S)

Using AI to predict six drugs that might inhibit infection from the COVID-19 virus and conducting followup studies on two of the drugs. (S)

Using the online gaming platform Eterna (a puzzle-solving “game with a purpose”) to engage citizen scientists who try to predict how the COVID-19 virus might evolve over time to shift its RNA sequence to evade therapeutic drugs and vaccines. (S)

Using machine learning to analyze CT scans, X-rays, and clinical data to predict the risk of respiratory failure in COVID-19 patients. (S)

Personal protective equipment

Determining the effectiveness and appropriate use of PPE for essential workers in grocery, warehouse, public transit and social services jobs. (B)

Developing methods for the decontamination and reuse of PPE, specifically N-95 masks. (B)

Repurposing full-face snorkel masks for use by medical professionals who aren’t able to access PPE with prototypes already in testing in three clinics. (S)

Key

Universities: Stanford (S), Berkeley (B), UC San Francisco (UCSF)

National Labs: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL), Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL)

Biotech Companies: Genentech (G), Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), Chan Zuckerberg BioHub (CZB), Gilead Sciences (GS), Curebase (C)

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