Princeton awards over half-a-million dollars in funding for rapid, novel and actionable COVID-19 research projects

Friday, Apr 10, 2020
by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

With the aim of accelerating solutions to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Princeton has awarded University funding for seven new faculty-led research initiatives with strong potential for impact.

The funding enables faculty and their teams to address crucial questions in biomedical, health-related and fundamental science, as well as policy, social and economic topics. Projects will receive funding of up to $100,000.

The projects include research on asymptomatic transmission, immunity following infection, vaccines, new treatments, contact tracing, economic implications of social distancing, challenges unique to urban environments, and strategies for reducing pandemic-associated domestic violence.

The University's support for new research against COVID-19 was spurred by a groundswell of requests from faculty, said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, whose office coordinated the application process and the review of the proposals.

"Many members of the Princeton faculty have reached out with requests for opportunities to use their knowledge, ideas and skills to assist in combating the COVID-19 pandemic," said Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemical and biological engineering. "The quality of the proposals received is a testament to the creativity of our faculty and to their dedication to the common good in this challenging time."

The seven projects were chosen following a competitive application process with proposals evaluated by a committee of peers. The funding supports the creation of new knowledge rather than production of materials or equipment for clinical purposes, which is being addressed by Princeton's COVID-19 Response Special Activities and Resources Group. Consideration was given to the unique needs facing the state of New Jersey, as well as the broader needs arising from the pandemic.

Reflecting the immediacy of the situation, researchers must report on their progress after three months, at which time only projects that have made appreciable progress will be allowed to continue.

Some projects will require access to laboratories and other campus spaces which are restricted due to New Jersey's stay-at-home order. These new projects will join a small number of campus-based projects deemed essential following earlier review by the Office of the Dean for Research.

The selected projects are:

Monitoring SARS-CoV-2 in Princeton: Quantifying viral transmission and building an understanding of immunity

Andrea Graham, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology 

Bryan Grenfell, the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School

C. Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School

Julien Ayroles, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics

Researchers will combine viral testing for active infections with evaluations of the immune response of individuals in the community of Princeton to provide much needed resolution on the question of asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. The project will also provide a foundation from which to probe the development of an immune response to the virus, with the potential to inform our understanding of what the immune response means in terms of protection from infection.

Development of critical reagents to accelerate drug and vaccine development against SARS-CoV-2

Alexander Ploss, associate professor of molecular biology

The team aims to develop a version of SARS-CoV-2 that is less dangerous to laboratory workers and that can be safely handled under less stringent safety controls, thus broadening the ability of more researchers to study the virus. The researchers will also evaluate the therapeutic efficacy of certain FDA-approved compounds that have been shown to interfere with the replication of numerous viruses, as well as test a potential vaccine approach. They also will work to establish a humanized mouse model that can be used for preclinical testing of drug and vaccine candidates.

Fine-grained, privacy-respecting contact traceback for COVID-19 epidemiology

Kyle Jamieson, associate professor of computer science

Leveraging advances in mobile tracking, this project aims to automate the identification and traceback of recent significant risk contacts of a confirmed COVID-19 case. Instead of relying on GPS, which doesn’t work well indoors and in many urban settings, the new approach employs more granular information from the cellular network’s control channel to determine whether and for how long people spend time near a confirmed positive case.

Proposal for identifying small molecules targeting SARS-CoV-2 spike binding to human ACE2 cell receptor

Cliff Brangwynne, professor of chemical and biological engineering

Researchers will search for molecules that disrupt the cycle of infection by blocking the interaction between the virus's spike proteins and the ACE2 receptors on human cells. The team will screen thousands of known bioactive compounds, including ones with prior FDA approval for other indications that could be rapidly deployed. Upon identifying promising compounds, the team will work with partner labs to move these candidates toward clinical testing.

Evaluating the economic implications and costs of COVID-19 social distancing policies

Natalie Bachas, assistant professor of economics

Arlene Wong, assistant professor of economics

Drawing on the collection of large datasets, the researchers will conduct an analysis to help inform the level of social distancing that balances health outcomes and economic consequences. These estimates will help guide the policy debate on how to both flatten the infection curve and the economic cost curve. The researchers will also evaluate the effectiveness of the payouts to households and provide key estimates on the economic spillovers of closures from essential and non-essential businesses.

Manual of urban distance: Strategies for reconfiguring the city

Paul Lewis, professor of architecture

Guy Nordenson, professor of architecture

Physical distancing and urban density are diametrically opposed, so new strategies are needed that rework the design of cities for a beneficial urban future. This project addresses the near-term problems of urban distancing during peak infection, as well as after restrictions are eased but the population is still at risk of a rebound. The second phase of the project will look at longer term and more permanent strategies that consider possible future resurgence of COVID-19 as well as future pandemics.

Macroeconomic shocks and domestic violence: Evidence from COVID-19

Maria Micaela Sviatschi, assistant professor of economics and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School

With unemployment on the rise and large numbers of people working from home, the potential for financial and emotional stress could potentially lead to increased domestic violence. This team will evaluate COVID-19's impact on domestic violence and aims to test two interventions that are likely to determine pathways to aid victims during a pandemic: one that provides labor market opportunities for women and a second that provides information on how to identify and respond in domestic violence cases.


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