Waterloo researchers awarded infrastructure funding for COVID-19 research

Friday, November 6, 2020

Three University of Waterloo researchers will receive funding for equipment and tools to support COVID-19 research.

The projects are among 79 across Canada named in an announcement today of close to $28 million in research infrastructure support through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) Exceptional Opportunities Fund by the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.

Gary DmitrienkoGary Dmitrienko (Chemistry): Synthesis of chromogenic substrates and inhibitors of SARS CoV-2 main protease to overcome COVID-19 infections ($251,000)

The goal of the project is to discover antiviral drug candidates to treat COVID19 infections. After invading a human cell, the SARS CoV-2 virus, that causes COVID19 infections, directs the cell to forma specific large protein molecule. Before the virus can induce formation of many copies of itself within the human cell which then leave the cell to infect other cells, the large protein molecule must first be converted into several smaller protein molecules, each of which has an essential role to play in spreading the virus to otherwise healthy cells within the infected individual. This is accomplished by the main protease (also called Mpro), an enzyme that is initially a part of the large protein molecule but that then cleaves itself from the large protein and catalyzes the conversion of the large protein into the smaller proteins that are essential for the replication of the virus in the human host. Mpro is an attractive target for specific small organic molecules as inhibitors of this process. This project involves the design and synthesis of molecules that will indicate the presence of Mpro activity through creation of an intense colour change (from yellow to deep purple). This will guide the design and synthesis of new drugs to treat COVID19 infections. The equipment requested is essential to purify the synthetic compounds to be made in this study.


Mark ServosMark Servos (Biology): Wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 to support public health assessment of trends in community infection ($314,000)

Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) has rapidly emerged as an effective method to conduct independent surveillance of the occurrence of SARS-CoV-2 in communities. The signal of viral fragments in wastewater (measured using polymerase chain reactions, PCR) can be strongly correlated to the reported positive tests or hospitalizations in the corresponding population (sewer-shed). This can be an additional tool to monitor trends in communities and inform public health actions that are not influenced by the same biases in human health testing (e.g. non-symptomatic cases, etc.). The proposed infrastructure will increase the capacity of the Waterloo team to conduct detailed studies and therefore contribute to the implementation of the approach more broadly (e.g. nationally). The infrastructure including a Sample Preparation System (biosafety cabinet, centrifuges, freezers, incubator) and a Sample Analysis System (real time quantitative PCR (qPCR) and digital PCR (dPCR)) will allow for accurate extraction and analysis of wastewater samples. The team has been actively engaged in the development of WBE in Canada and will continue to: refine, develop and validate methods for application to various wastewater matrices; assess trends in SARS-CoV-2 detection in several representative communities; test alternate sample strategies and endpoints; and examine how environmental variables impact viral fragment detection in sewer systems and influence model predictions and interpretation.


Michael TamMichael Tam (Chemical Engineering) and Kevin Musselman (Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering): Advanced engineering processes and materials to produce compostable masks and antimicrobial coatings for PPE ($800,000)

COVID-19 infections occur by inhaling water droplets expelled by infected individuals or by touching contaminated surfaces. N95 masks, surgical masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) for protection against infection are mainly produced from synthetic plastic fibers. Most PPE do not have antimicrobial properties, and viruses can persist on surfaces for days, posing a contamination risk to society. The research team led by Michael Tam and Kevin Musselman is proposing an interdisciplinary research program with industry and regulatory stakeholders to develop the next generation of PPE that address the two critical modes of transmission. The two key tasks include developing: (1) sustainable and compostable face masks and PPE, and (2) antimicrobial coatings and protective spray formulations for PPE and touch surfaces. The use of PPE produced from natural instead of synthetic fibers will advance Canada's vision of banning single-use plastics that is aligned with the United Nations' sustainable development goals. Both advances will deliver significant health and environmental benefits to essential workers and civilians. Innovations in sustainable nanomaterials and advanced layer deposition processes will foster new ventures and start-ups, generating economic activity that offers skilled employment for HQP trained in the lab. The technology developed with the requested infrastructure will invigorate the advanced manufacturing sector in Canada and help tackle COVID-19, climate change, and other challenges of the future. Professor Tam is a University Research Chair and a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN). Also a member of WIN, Professor Musselman won an Ontario Early Researcher Award in 2019.

Read more about Gary Dmitrienko and Mark Servos and Michael Tam and Kevin Musselman

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