Five College of Pharmacy Researchers Win TRIF Funding for Projects to Fight COVID-19

“Our faculty members bring a wealth of knowledge to the table and are primed to assist in the effort to improve the health outcomes of patients facing the effects of COVID-19."

Several initiatives of University of Arizona College of Pharmacy faculty members have been funded as part of more than $500,000 awarded to UArizona research teams to “jump-start” projects to fight COVID-19.

The UArizona BIO5 Institute, which connects hundreds of researchers in different disciplines across the UArizona campuses to address complex challenges, has responded to the pandemic by releasing a round of seed funding through the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF), which is administered by the Arizona Board of Regents. The fund enables researchers to positively impact Arizonans’ health and combat the global pandemic.

The five College of Pharmacy researchers among the 13 interdisciplinary groups funded through the program are: Jianqin Lu, BPharm, PhD, assistant professor; Xinxin Ding, PhD, head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology; Yin Chen, PhD, associate professor; Wei Wang, PhD, professor and co-director of the Arizona Center for Drug Discovery; and Brian Erstad, PharmD, head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science. These scientists are addressing the pandemic from multiple angles.

“Our faculty members bring a wealth of knowledge to the table and are primed to assist in the effort to improve the health outcomes of patients facing the effects of COVID-19,” said Rick Schnellmann, PhD, dean of the UArizona College of Pharmacy. “This talented group of researchers understands the importance to identify innovative approaches to address this unique public-health crisis.”

Enhancing Efficacy: Drs. Jianqin Lu and Xinxin Ding

Two anti-malarial drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, have shown promise against COVID-19 in clinical studies. Their use, however, is associated with serious safety concerns and large variations in effectiveness. Most recently, the FDA revoked its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for these two drugs citing the that potential serious side effects outweighing the potential benefit. Drs. Lu and Ding believe the EUA highlights the urgent need for development of a safer and more effective formulation for these two toxic drugs. With their research, they aim to use “nanotechnology” to improve delivery, enhance efficacy and minimize the toxicity of these drugs.

“These drugs are mechanistically sound. The key to success is to strike a good balance between the benefits and the potential risks,” Dr. Ding explained. “The current version of these drugs have too many adverse effects, which makes it difficult to show the benefits. We are hoping that the nano-drug delivery formulation, in which nanoparticles are used for the delivery and release of a drug in the body, will improve that balance by reducing risk and enhance benefits.”

Immune Response: Drs. Jianqin Lu and Yin Chen

Dr. Lu also has joined forces with Dr. Chen to investigate whether immune system activation can treat COVID-19 patients instead of directly targeting the virus. The team’s goal is to produce new interferon-based drug, which are molecules found in the body named for their ability to “interfere” with the viral replication cycle, in which a virus makes copies of itself causing a viral infection. The potential of this treatment method could go far beyond COVID-19.

“If we succeed, we will be close to the development of a universal treatment for many viral illnesses including COVID-19, influenza, etc.,” Dr. Chen said.

Novel Compounds: Dr. Wei Wang

Because clinical studies of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have provided uncertain evidence regarding their usefulness, Dr. Wang has teamed up with two associate professors of medicine, Steffan Nawrocki, PhD, and Jennifer Carew, PhD, with the UArizona Cancer Center to design similar, yet distinct compounds using the two anti-malarial drugs as a foundation. This team of experts aims to develop compounds that are safer and more effective.

“Our team, comprised of experts in cell regeneration, experimental therapeutics, drug discovery and coronavirus biology, is ideally positioned to address this critically unmet medical need,” Dr. Wang said. COVID-19

Clinical Registry: Dr. Brian Erstad

Dr. Erstad, with fellow PI's Karen Lutrick, PhD, of the College of Medicine – Tucson, and Dean Billheimer, PhD, of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and Center for Biomedical Informatics and Biostatistics, have developed a project using patient data from Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and area family medical clinics to create a real-time, COVID-19 database that will allow for a better understanding of the impact of the pandemic on local health systems. Co-Investigators of this project include Myra Muramoto, MD, MPH, Family & Community Medicine, and Jarrod Mosier, MD, Emergency Medicine and Pulmonary Critical Care, both from the College of Medicine – Tucson, and Chris Edwards, PharmD with in the College of Pharmacy

“The database will provide information on diagnosis, disease progression, treatments and outcomes for our local community,” Dr. Erstad said. “And it will provide the framework for future funding related to pandemic preparedness.”

TRIF Funds

TRIF was established through Proposition 301, approved by Arizona taxpayers in November 2000 to raise the Arizona sales tax by 0.6%. Revenue generated through this mechanism is vital to supporting university research and innovation, in addition to K-12 education and community college workforce programs.

In response to the pandemic, TRIF funds were quickly allocated to create a COVID-19 seed grant program. Proposals for interdisciplinary basic science, technology, clinical or population research that directly address COVID-19 were accepted from university teams of two or more researchers.

Projects were awarded based on three criteria: the potential to make an immediate COVID-19 impact, collaboration and teamwork of the applicants, and use of university core facilities in addressing research questions. Of the 55 seed grant applicants, 13 interdisciplinary groups were funded, representing seven UArizona colleges. With funds to support technical staff, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and resources to perform analyses, researchers will address the novel coronavirus from multiple angles.