Brock awarded $200,000 for equipment to research cell biology of COVID-19 infection

A Brock University research team has received a grant that will enable them to research how humans react to COVID-19 and a possible therapy to treat infection.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) awarded immunologist Adam MacNeil and medical entomologist Fiona Hunter $200,000 to purchase high molecular and cellular resolution equipment for this work.

“We are excited and honoured that the Canada Foundation for Innovation has equipped us with outstanding and sophisticated tools capable of analyzing and imaging virus-host interactions at the molecular and cellular level,” says team leader MacNeil, Associate Professor of Health Sciences.

The Brock research teams will study how cells respond to infection, the impact of acquired immunity toward coronaviruses, and how interactions between the immune system and cells lining the lungs shape the inflammation characteristic of severe COVID-19.

They will also look at if and how a molecule called a peptide could be used to reduce the replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, acting as a possible therapy.

The new equipment will be housed in Brock University’s Level 3 containment laboratory (CL3), which MacNeil says is the ideal location.

“These tools will be used to directly investigate the biology of virus-host interactions and identify potential paths toward viral inhibition by equipping us with high-impact tools for work with live infectious samples within the safe confines of the CL3,” he says.

Level 3 enables Hunter, Professor of Biological Sciences, and her team to study arboviruses such as the Zika and West Nile viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, as Brock’s CL3 lab is the only one at a Canadian University that is equipped with an insectary.

“In Brock’s CL3, Dr. MacNeil and I have graduate students who will study the effects of co-infection and super-infection with SARS-CoV-2 and a second virus such as influenza virus and will work on antibody dependent enhancement (ADE) of SARS-CoV-2 due to prior exposure to other coronaviruses,” she says.

Hunter says the new equipment is “critical” for the team’s coronavirus research and will be useful for other Brock researchers for testing the effectiveness of potential anti-viral compounds.

The financial support comes from a special CFI program called the Exceptional Opportunities Fund — COVID 19.

On Friday, Nov. 6, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the CFI award recipients from Brock and other universities across Canada.

“It’s an important development to have secured funding from this highly competitive national program,” says Brock University Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon. “This award recognizes the world-class research of Dr. MacNeil and Dr. Hunter, the tremendous contributions they have made in their fields, and the state-of-the-art facilities available at Brock to carry out such promising and impactful research.”

The Exceptional Opportunities Fund — COVID-19 program invests up to $25 million with the objective of supporting urgent needs for equipment for ongoing research related to COVID-19.

MacNeil says the timing of this funding and resulting equipment is spot-on.

“We are heading into an uncertain winter season and we see evidence of ‘COVID-fatigue’ creeping in,” he says. “Science is a methodical and objective process, and the pursuit of solutions to deal with emergent pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 takes time.

“This underscores the importance of each of us doing our part to remain vigilant by following public health guidelines and even going above and beyond when possible to minimize virus transmission, protecting our families, neighbours and community.”

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