Press Release

USC research pivots to meet the coronavirus crisis head on

July 09, 2020
Public health, engineering, policy, psychology and microbiology experts are all coming together to study the problems caused by the coronavirus. (Image/National Institutes of Health)

When most Los Angeles residents were adapting to the early days of the coronavirus, dozens of scientists and engineers convened from across USC’s campuses to apply their groundbreaking research in everything from artificial intelligence to molecular biology and aim their collective focus on treating and preventing COVID-19.

The hope is that, through the coordinated efforts of the COVID-19 Research Task Force, experts will speed the development of targeted treatments and accelerate their understanding of the disease.

Laura Mosqueda, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, launched the effort on March 23 to marshal USC’s expertise against the novel coronavirus. The effort is organized into six teams focused on controlling the virus and treating patients.

“We had a surprise attack [COVID-19] that changed the world in a matter of days, and here I am surrounded by some of the most brilliant scientists in the world who are not only up to the task but eager to tackle it,” Mosqueda said. “We provided some structure and facilitation to foment ideas across disciplines and across the university. Teamwork and collaboration can be even more challenging when social distancing.”

Aiming USC’s COVID-19 research at the big questions

The task force is focused on solving key questions like:

  • Can new antiviral medications kill the coronavirus?
  • Can existing medicines be repurposed to prevent immune responses from exacerbating COVID-19?
  • What new methods can block the virus from entering cells and spreading?
  • How can we refine prediction models to better protect public health?

“By connecting the dots between people, labs and the health system, this task force provides an efficient and effective way to get answers to these important questions as quickly as possible,” Mosqueda said.

For a world pummeled by COVID-19, USC is leveraging its diverse disciplines to concentrate on a challenge. Because the university is based in one of the world’s most diverse regions, USC researchers are uniquely positioned to include patients from different populations, increasing the potential for results that can be applied beyond Southern California.

Funding for the new task force comes from USC, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and others. The team effort extends beyond the bounds of campus; other collaborators also include UCLA, the Mayo Clinic, Scripps Research Institute and government agencies.

Currently, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health works with researchers at the USC Price School of Public Policy to determine the prevalence of coronavirus antibodies in county residents.

COVID task force tackles the disease from different angles

The task force is organized into six teams:

  • Pre-clinical research, diagnosing infections and advancing efforts to treat or vaccinate for the illness.
  • Clinical trials/therapeutics, supporting trials to identify the most effective treatments and diagnostic tools.
  • Characterization and management research, to assess symptoms and disease severity.
  • Epidemiology and population research, to focus on infection rates and disease hot spots.
  • Social, behavioral and mental health, to study the psychological and sociological impacts of the disease.
  • Risk mitigation through community outreach and engagement.

In the campaign against COVID-19, experts on USC’s Health Sciences and University Park campuses can rely on each other’s expertise. Doctors and scientists at the Keck School of Medicine have patient and virus data, while computer scientists and engineers at the University Park Campus and satellite campuses bring artificial intelligence, machine learning, bioinformatics, imaging and information tools to the task.

An example of collaboration already taking place: Researchers at the Spatial Sciences Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the Information Sciences Institute and the Keck School of Medicine are examining the relationship between COVID-19 deaths and air pollution in California.

Scientists at ISI can use data mining, machine learning and predictive analytics to analyze big data and determine how COVID-19 impacts specific populations, as well as predict the disease’s spread and help patient prognosis, said Craig Knoblock, professor of computer and spatial sciences at ISI, part of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“Everyone has a strong desire to help. We’re trying to fight the same enemy and do what we can together to win this battle,” he said.

Leveraging coronavirus-related knowledge throughout USC

Researchers at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience’s Convergent Science Institute in Cancer have been using AI to study cancer patients, disease progression and treatment in people around the world and in real time.

“All the data integration, all of these things are the grist of machine learning to pick out patterns,” said Steve Kay, Provost Professor of Neurology, Biomedical Engineering and Biological Sciences and director of convergent bioscience at the USC Michelson Center. “This is exactly what machine learning does, a process at the heart of AI and how we look for robust patterns in complex, large datasets. We can leverage the same principles we’ve been developing in AI and medicine to programs dealing with the disease outbreak.”

The Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute is also part of the effort, bringing together NIH-funded research centers, staff support and partnerships at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the L.A. County Department of Health Services.

USC collaborations on COVID-19 research continue to grow

The COVID-19 Research Task Force is a hard pivot for USC. Few university researchers were involved with coronaviruses or global pandemics until recently. USC has 23 schools and units, many of which have joined the effort, creating unprecedented opportunities for collaborations.

“We’ve been so disrupted that people are more open to cross boundaries. We’re finding synergies that we otherwise wouldn’t have found,” Mosqueda said.

Among the additional collaborators across USC are experts at the USC School of Pharmacy, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the departments of psychology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

— by Gary Polakovic