Research Stories

Video provided by Stony Brook University

Studying the Virus that Shook the World

By Josh Joseph

Stony Brook University was in the midst of a crisis when Richard Reeder, the university’s vice president for research, issued an announcement on March 20, 2020.

“In an effort to protect the health and safety of Stony Brook students, staff, and faculty, all laboratory-based research activities must be ramped down by 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 21st,” it read in part. “The only exceptions will be critical activities, including care of animals, maintenance of unique reagents, and monitoring of essential equipment and materials. Research that is directly related to COVID-19 may continue providing that health and safety guidelines are observed.”

It was no insignificant announcement. Stony Brook University is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, a select group of institutions of higher learning committed to research. It also maintains a top R1 ranking from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as one of the country’s top doctoral universities with very high research activity. Pausing, let alone stopping, research at the university was tantamount to cutting off a limb.

Stony Brook’s researchers were operating roughly 2,000 funded projects at the time of the announcement as well as an additional 400 to 500 unfunded projects. Since the shutdown, more than 200 research teams have been studying the coronavirus, investigating topics ranging from vaccine development and therapeutics to artificial intelligence and supercomputer modeling.

“I think what we saw is that a number of our researchers recognized an opportunity to do something that could benefit society,” Reeder said. “And they immediately pivoted, and started to work on certain topics that were related to COVID-19.”

In turn, the Office of Research immediately got to work to support these new efforts, developing a seed grant to fund 17 COVID-19-related studies in May 2020 in an effort to propel them to further federal funding. The winning projects included medical investigations of antiviral drugs and diagnostic artificial intelligence as well as non-medical studies on the effects of isolation and social distancing. Beyond these 17 grant winners, many projects that weren’t awarded seed money continued.

“We knew from past experience that it would be important to provide seed funding to researchers in order to be able to give them just enough funding to develop proof of principle or collect preliminary data, so that they could write really competitive proposals to federal sponsors like the National Institutes of Health,” Reeder said. “So in very short order, I think in just a matter of a week, we redirected some funds that we would have used for other seed funding, and we created a seed funding program. … It was remarkably fast.”

In June, Reeder issued another announcement — that research would resume through a multistage process under Stony Brook’s “Coming Back Safe and Strong” plan. Between June and August, research staff were slowly allowed back on campus in shifts, with social distancing, mask-wearing and other guidelines enforced through individually approved plans. Now, they have resumed their work to the best of their ability, in phase four of the plan, which allows up to 80 percent of research personnel back in the labs at any particular time. 

“What we found is that all of the research groups are able to accommodate the members of their teams to come back to research at, more or less, a full level of activity,” Reeder said. “There is a final stage in restarting research, phase five, and the way that was defined is when there are no longer risks associated with COVID. At this point, we don’t anticipate that being a phase that we would move to until this whole epidemic is past us. … It could well push into 2022.”

Stony Brook researchers have made great strides and won accolades for their work combatting the coronavirus. Read about their work here.

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Research Snapshots

Effects of quarantine and isolation on youths with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

A study conducted by Matthew Lerner, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics, found that 10-  to 17-year-olds with higher-level symptoms of ASD experienced more severe signs of anxiety, depression and loneliness during quarantine. His team at the Social Competence and Research Lab in the psychology building at Stony Brook University also found that, at the beginning of the pandemic, the social behavior of young people with ASD tended to languish while those without ASD became more socially active. Lerner’s team plans to conduct a longer study to identify more risk factors for youngsters with ASD. 

The relationship between media exposure and responses to COVID-19

Rubong Li, assistant professor of mass communication in  Stony Brook’s School of Communication and Journalism, surveyed more than 500 adults to gain insight to their responses to COVID-19 based on their media consumption. The study found that the frequency of participants’ media exposure predicted their level of fear of COVID-19, and that there was a positive correlation between fear and media consumption. Li recently received a grant from Stony Brook to further her research into the relationship between media consumption and vaccine hesitancy. She is working on the yearlong project with Lijiang Shen, professor of communication arts and science at Pennsylvania State University.

Predicting patients’ need for ventilators using chest X-Rays and machine learning

A team led by Prateek Prasanna, an assistant professor in  Stony Brook’s Department of Biomedical Informatics, and comprised of researchers from Stony Brook University and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in New Jersey, found that by using machine learning to analyze chest X-rays, they could predict which COVID patients would require mechanical ventilation. Their deep-learning model also correctly predicted patient mortality more than 90 percent of the time. Their findings are available in pre-print and have not been peer-reviewed. Prasanna, who has a doctorate in biomedical engineering, hopes the research can lead to further advancements in medical applications of machine learning. 

Stress levels in pregnant women during the pandemic

The Stony Brook COVID-19 Pregnancy Experiences (SB-COPE) study, which was conducted online, followed 7,400 pregnant women during the pandemic. Led by Heidi Preis in the psychology department, who has a doctorate in social work, the researchers used longitudinal surveys to discover that close to one-third of the participants experienced higher stress levels and more than 40 percent  experienced moderate or severe generalized anxiety. Also, those experiencing high levels of stress had a higher likelihood of having a preterm birth. Researchers expect the ongoing study to follow participants for up to five years.

Using computer models to identify new drugs that could inhibit SARS-CoV-2

A research project led by Miguel Garcia-Diaz – director of Stony Brook’s graduate program in molecular and cellular pharmacology – and Robert Rizzo, a professor of computational structural biology, used computer models to speed up the process of testing the effectiveness of various drugs against RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Rather than manually testing individual drugs against different molecules, their team created computer models that simulate tests, which proved to be more efficient. Already, the team has found several compounds that are effective in their models. While not yet clinically useful, their findings may allow them to expand their research to hopefully reach that point.

A new potential way to treat COVID-19 patients

A study led by Erich Mackow, a professor in Stony Brook’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, investigated the functions of endothelial cells in patients infected with COVID-19. These cells, which line the body’s organs and regulate inflammation, get infected with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-9  – through ACE2 receptors. But Mackow’s team found that endothelial cells don’t actually have the receptors until after they’ve been infected, meaning SARS-CoV-2 has a way of activating the endothelial cells without a direct infection. Mackow hopes that further study may result in new treatments.