MPower Projects to Focus on Testing, Vaccines, Telehealth, Health Communications

Published 9/25/20 in Maryland Today

COVID testing
The MPowering the State initiative has awarded $500,000 in grants to address COVID-19, from research on improved testing to new vaccine discovery to encouraging at-risk populations to take advantage of a vaccine when it is available.
(Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle)

Five teams of researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore are splitting nearly $500,000 in seed grants to respond to the challenges of COVID-19 in Maryland and beyond.

Projects will focus on new vaccines and therapies, affordable testing for the disease, how to encourage vaccine acceptance among people most at risk from the virus, and artificial intelligence-supported telehealth, the MPowering the State initiative announced today. MPower is a strategic collaboration that highlights and combines the strengths of both institutions for the good of Marylanders.

“This pandemic is not just a medical crisis; it’s a complex human crisis, which requires a multidisciplinary response,” said Roger J. Ward, UMB interim provost and executive vice president and dean of UMB’s Graduate School. “We knew that tapping the power of the strategic partnership would bring together top thinkers from all of the areas of our expertise in medicine and public health, as well as in the social and behavioral sciences, policy and law.”

The selected teams consist of faculty from UMCP’s College of Arts and Humanities, School of Public Health and College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, partnering with researchers from UMB’s schools of medicine, pharmacy and nursing.

“Through MPower, we can bring together our significant and complementary research strengths to respond to this public health crisis,” said UMCP Provost and Senior Vice President Mary Ann Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Steering Council that selected the grant awardees from 50 applications. “Our goal is to harness our collective faculty expertise to accelerate critical research that will reduce the impact of COVID-19.”

The projects are:

“Predicting and Improving COVID-19 Vaccine Acceptance Among African Americans during the Coronavirus Pandemic” received $98,432 to help understand why African Americans, who suffer disproportionately from the adverse health and economic impact of the pandemic, might accept or reject the anticipated COVID-19 vaccine. The goal is to develop and evaluate communication messages that could be used in a broader health promotion effort to improve COVID-19 vaccine acceptance among African Americans. The findings will help address COVID-19 health disparities and inform pandemic vaccine communication across ethnic and racial groups. The team includes:

  • Xiaoli Nan, professor of communication and director, Center for Health and Risk Communication at UMCP;
  • Sandra Quinn, professor and chair, Department of Family Science, and senior associate director, Maryland Center for Health Equity at UMCP;
  • Clement Adebamowo, professor, epidemiology and public health, Institute of Human Virology, and associate director of the Population Science Program, Marlene & Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center at UMB;
  • Shana Ntiri, assistant professor, family and community medicine, and medical director of the Baltimore City Cancer Program, Marlene & Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Development of a COVID-19 vaccine based on the supramolecular assembly of SARS-CoV-2 structural proteins using a novel immunoadjuvant delivery system” received $100,000 to generate novel vaccine candidates. The team will utilize an interdisciplinary approach with advanced computational design tools and high-resolution structural characterization to produce and optimize vaccine candidates based on the Spike glycoprotein, which is a critical target of the antibody response to SARS-CoV-2. The team includes:

  • Tom Fuerst, professor of cell biology and molecular genetics, Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) at UMCP;
  • Matthew Frieman, associate professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UMB.
  • Gilad Ofek, assistant professor, cell biology and molecular genetics, IBBR;
  • Brian Pierce, assistant professor, cell biology and molecular genetics, IBBR;
  • Alexander Andrianov, research professor, IBBR.

The “Rapid point-of-care testing for SARS-CoV-2” project received $100,000 to develop a point-of-care test that can rapidly and effectively detect infections of SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. One of the challenges in preventing onward transmission of the virus is the lack of a simple, rapid, and affordable test. Without a rapid test, it is almost impossible to early identify infected cases and isolate them from the community. The team includes

  • Feng Jiang, professor, Department of Pathology at UMB;
  • Hongjie Liu, professor and chair, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UMCP;
  • Sanford Stass, professor and chair, Department of Pathology, and co-lead of COVID-19 Testing Initiative of Maryland, UMB; 
  • Nevins Todd, clinical associate professor, pulmonary medicine, UMB. 

The “Molecular Investigations of SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein” project received $100,000 to offer a potential means of therapeutic intervention in COVID-19 by inhibiting assembly and propagation of SARS-CoV-2 progeny. In infected cells, coronaviruses use host fat molecules to transport spike protein to the correct cellular compartment for progeny assembly. Researchers will use high-resolution imaging to discern atomic-level details of how host fat molecules modify the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein for transport. These architectural details will open avenues for computational screening of small molecules for inhibition of spike-fat interactions. The team includes:

  • Syed Saif Hasan, assistant professor, biochemistry and molecular biology at UMB;
  • John Orban, professor, chemistry and biochemistry, NMR spectroscopy, IBBR; 
  • Alexander MacKerell, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UMB; 
  • *Grollman-Glick, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, and director, Computer-Aided Drug Design Center at UMB.

“Developing an artificial intelligence tool to improve caregiver engagement for rural child behavioral health services” received $90,522 to improve telehealth services for children living in rural areas of the state, who are now even more isolated due to COVID-19. The team will examine artificial intelligence (AI)-based technology strategies to assist behavioral health providers working in an environment where most of these services are provided through videoconferencing platforms. The project will collect and analyze information such as speech patterns and facial expressions from videotaped sessions and assess to see how AI-measured engagement compares with provider- and caregiver-reported engagement in care. The project will also investigate the association of social isolation with perceived caregiver engagement. This data could potentially be used to improve provider training and develop a tool that provides real-time feedback to providers on caregiver engagement. The team includes:

  • Gloria Reeves, associate professor, psychiatry, and vice chair of research services at UMB;
  • Aniket Bera, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science, Maryland Robotics Center and University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at UMCP;
  • Susan dosReis, research vice chair for Research, Pharmaceutical Health Services Research at UMB;
  • Dinesh Manocha, Paul Chrisman Iribe Professor of Computer Science, professor of electrical and computer engineering and Distinguished University Professor at UMCP;
  • Mathangi Gopalakrishnan, research assistant professor, Pharmaceutical Health Services Research at UMB;
  • Kay Connors, instructor, psychiatry at UMB;
  • Kristin Bussell, assistant professor, family and community health at UMB;
  • Katrina Escuro, assistant professor, psychiatry at UMB.