Virologist David Evans and research associate Ryan Noyce, pictured here, are working with a U.S. company to develop and test a vaccine, one of more than 130 being developed around the world in response to the pandemic. Photo by John Ulan


An Inside Look at COVID-19 Research

U of A labs are part of the worldwide hunt for solutions

By Stephanie Bailey, '10 BA(Hons)

Virologist David Evans and research associate Ryan Noyce, pictured here, are working with a U.S. company to develop and test a vaccine, one of more than 130 being developed around the world in response to the pandemic. Photo by John Ulan
July 23, 2020 •

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to course through our communities, it has become clear how essential research is to our everyday lives and well-being. These days, we hang off every word spoken by our top doctors and scientists. We awake to screens full of breaking news alerts about promising treatments. And we discuss mask etiquette over dinner with loved ones. 

We know that scientists, including many at the University of Alberta, are working on solutions to this virus that has changed our lives, but most of us only vaguely understand what that means. To learn more, New Trail took an inside look at the labs of virologists David Evans and Tom Hobman at the U of A’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology — which was designed for a crisis like this.

This fridge, which holds cell cultures used to grow the virus, is littered with jokes between grad students. Research can be stressful, Evans explains. “You’re trying to prove some hypothesis and it turns out your hypothesis is wrong. That can be pretty frustrating, and humour is always the best way to deal with it.” Photo by John Ulan

Formed in 2010, the Li Ka Shing Institute brings together top researchers to tackle the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, from human immunodeficiency virus to Ebola. The institute has custom-built “level three” labs that allow researchers to work safely with deadly pathogens such as COVID-19. Like something out of a sci-fi movie, workers need special key card access to enter and they wear special gowns, masks and headgear to protect their eyes. Other labs are “level two,” where slightly lower levels of precautions are required. 

Fuelled by the urgency of the situation, Evans’ and Hobman’s research teams are juggling multiple projects at once in their shared lab. While Hobman hunts for therapies to boost the immune system’s response, Evans’ team searches for ways to speed up drug testing and sanitize personal protective equipment. Evans is also on the trail of a targeted vaccine. 

It may be an unprecedented and exciting time in the lab these days, but the daily monotony of experiments and detailed record keeping remains constant. This is, after all, not a sci-fi movie.

Evans and Tom Hobman (right) meet four to fives times a day — at a distance — to co-ordinate and give each other updates about experiments. Photo by John Ulan
Much of the current work on COVID-19 is based on years of research with other viruses. “The tedious thing about research is record keeping,” says Evans. “It’s unbelievably easy to mix things up when you have hundreds of samples. So proper labelling is essential for any kind of research like this.” Photo by John Ulan
Beyond a vaccine

Weve all heard about the hunt for a vaccine, but researchers like Evans and Hobman also are searching for solutions to problems that wouldn’t even occur to most of us. 

Take the problem of screening drugs, which can be lengthy and costly. Evans’ team is working to create a molecular clone of the virus, known as a replicon: a non-infectious version that’s safer to handle. Researchers could use it to screen certain antiviral drugs more easily and quickly without having to use a level three lab. The extra safety precautions in a high-containment lab tend to make testing more laborious and can slow down research.

Plus, replicons can be modified by adding new genes that are easier to detect, which makes it easier to see whether a drug is helping to slow the replication of the virus or not.

Siddartha Biswas, a postdoctoral fellow, works with pellets of bacteria used to propagate a non-infectious clone of the novel coronavirus that’s safer to handle than the real thing. Photo by John Ulan

A second problem Evans’ team is trying to address is the shortage of personal protective equipment worldwide, especially in developing countries. They’re looking for simple, affordable ways to sanitize equipment to make it reusable. 

“Many parts of the world don’t have the sterilization technologies that we do,” he says. “So the World Health Organization is very interested in a low-tech accessible technology that anyone could use.” The proposed solution? Methylene blue, a readily available dye that’s used to sterilize blood. Evans’ research shows that when exposed to light, the dye generates oxygen radicals, which are effective at killing the virus.

Evans’ team also recently partnered with a U.S.-based company to develop and test a vaccine that targets the “spike” protein the coronavirus uses to enter cells and cause infection.

Evans’ research associate James Lin works inside a biocontainment hood, which sterilizes the air with a large fan and hepa filter, as part of a project to inactivate the virus to help sterilize personal protective equipment. Interesting fact: he’s wearing a special microbiology lab coat. You can tell by the elastic cuffs. Photo by John Ulan
When Evans isn’t reading up on the latest coronavirus research, he spends his time applying for grants or drafting contracts for projects funded by bodies like the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization. Photo by John Ulan
Figuring out how the virus works

While researchers hunt for a vaccine or treatment, the virus continues to create a host of devastating effects that need solutions today. Hobman’s lab is focused on developing therapies to boost the immune system’s defence against the virus. 

First, they have to figure out what makes the virus tick. A virus is a parasite that can only grow in living cells. Once attached to a host, it tricks the body’s immune response into letting it replicate. Hobman’s research team is trying to figure out exactly how this works with COVID-19.

Jamie Cole, a research assistant in Hobman’s lab, analyzes the proteins of cells infected with the novel coronavirus. The goal is to develop therapies to boost the immune system’s defence by figuring out exactly how the virus replicates. Photo by John Ulan
Distancing puts a damper on

In many ways, it’s business as usual in U of A labs: the long days, the meticulous record keeping and the repetitive nature of everyday experiments. In other ways, it’s like never before. 

One of the greatest tolls is caused by the necessary physical distancing, says Evans. Where once researchers would connect over crosswords in the lunchroom, they now appear as Brady Bunch heads over Zoom meetings focused on the business at hand. That has interfered with impromptu interactions between researchers — so-called creative collisions — that are so important to discovery.

Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to connect with other researchers working on projects moving at an accelerated pace. Hobman hosts regular virtual lab meetings in an effort to stay in touch. Photo by John Ulan

“The thing I don’t think people really appreciate about research, and it’s actually a problem, is that a tremendous amount of creative ideas come out of casual conversations,” says Evans. He gives the example of the structure of the DNA molecule, said to have been discovered in an English pub.

Still, researchers like Hobman and Evans are finding ways to connect and collaborate in this new and uncertain world. And together they’re carrying out the painstaking process of conducting experiment after experiment, working toward finding solutions to this life-threatening disease.

Hobman discusses ongoing experiments with research associate Amil Kumar. Photo by John Ulan

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