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Faculty researchers from Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and Russ College of Engineering and Technology have received a $100,000 grant to investigate possible treatments for mitigating the severity of COVID-19.

Kelly McCall, Ph.D., and Douglas Goetz, Ph.D., will measure how effective a number of different chemical compounds are at preventing “cytokine storms,” a sometimes-fatal complication that can stem from COVID-19 infections.

The body responds to the presence of a pathogen by releasing a swarm of immune system proteins called cytokines to help fight off the virus or bacterium. If too many cytokines are released, a cytokine storm develops which can severely damage organs. This reaction is believed to be responsible for some of the deaths from COVID-19.

McCall is a professor in the Heritage College Department of Specialty Medicine and an investigator with its Diabetes Institute, and Goetz is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Russ College.

Funding for this research is provided by the Fast Grant from Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University in Virginia. On April 7, the Center announced a grant program to provide funding for research on COVID-19. Reflecting the urgency of the worldwide search for ways to treat the pandemic, Goetz and McCall wrote the grant application in three days, and it was approved within just a few days of its submission.

According to Goetz and McCall, inhibiting the action of GSK-3 enzymes, highly active catalysts believed to play a role in producing cytokine storms, might help prevent the storms. A handful of GSK-3 inhibitors have been or are now being used in clinical trials; the researchers will be testing the effectiveness of five of these compounds.

McCall noted that the grant proposal stemmed from research she, Goetz and colleagues have been working on for years: studying how toll-like receptors, a class of proteins that play an important role in the immune system, are involved in producing cytokine storms. As part of this research, they have developed some compounds that are highly effective at inhibiting the action of an enzyme known as GSK-3.

“We realized that these GSK-3 inhibitors may act to block the cytokine storm that can be induced by pathogens such as viruses and bacteria,” McCall explained.

Given the suspected role of cytokine storms in COVID-19 fatalities, Goetz and McCall realized that GSK-3 inhibitors might be used as a treatment. They aim to test inhibitors already approved for safety, given how long it takes to get federal approval for a new drug for humans.

“Our hope is, if those are useful for COVID-19, then hopefully it will save people’s lives in the short term,” McCall said.

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