MD PhD student David Henson working in Venditto Lab

One College of Pharmacy’s Bold Approach to the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 10, 2020

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 10, 2020) — Members of the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy (UKCOP) have joined together with other University of Kentucky (UK) colleges to form the COVID-19 Unified Research Experts (CURE) Alliance team. The goal of the CURE Alliance is to contribute to the international effort to understand, treat, and eventually eradicate COVID-19. Funding for the group comes from the College of Medicine, with additional support from UK's Vice President of Research, Lisa Cassis. The College of Pharmacy joins UK HealthCare, the UK College of Medicine, and UK College of Public Health in their efforts to address the pandemic.

 

Kip Guy, dean of the College of Pharmacy, is one of the critical members of the CURE Alliance and charged with coordinating the efforts of the College to develop an antibody assay to perform wide-scale community testing. The test would help distinguish between individuals who have contracted COVID-19 versus those who have not. The antibody test could have significant public health implications, allowing communities to identify where potential disease “hot spots” are while helping public health officials better contain transmission. 

 

“Our researchers and clinicians are rapidly adapting to the changing healthcare landscape and taking up the challenges offered to us by the COVID pandemic. A current critical need is to be able to identify individuals who have generated immunity to COVID after being infected. This will be particularly useful for understanding risks to healthcare workers and managing their return to work,” says Guy.

 

Vincent Venditto, an assistant professor at UKCOP, working with College of Medicine's Jerold Woodward and Jennifer Moylan, also lends his expertise in large scale antibody screening to the team. “Proteins produced by the immune system (called antibodies) help us determine if a person is infected. Regardless of symptoms, your immune system will produce antibodies to help fight this virus. By detecting COVID-19 antibodies using a blood test, we can more accurately determine who is, or has been, infected and who has not,” says Venditto. The UK Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy are working together to optimize the assay in order to get it to Venditto's lab for high throughput screening. 

 

The College hopes to establish blood collection locations, potentially in pharmacies across Kentucky, to test communities that do not have access to the necessary infrastructure for adequate population screening of COVID-19. Venditto says this assay offers the potential to test hundreds of Kentuckian healthcare workers and residents each day. 

 

“If we partner with pharmacies across Kentucky, we would be able to reach people who aren’t within driving distance of a hospital,” says Venditto. In the United States, an estimated 90 percent of people live within 5 miles of a pharmacy, while Kentucky boasts a pharmacy in all 120 counties except one.

 

Venditto is working closely with other UKCOP researchers, including Chang-Guo Zhan and HEAL Grant recipient Trish Freeman, who lend their expertise in protein expression and pharmacy advocacy/engagement, respectively.

 

The College is also planning to partner with the UK team that oversees Wellness Health & You (WHY), a long-term, survey-based research project based in the Center for Clinical and Translational Science. WHY, which aims to understand how life experiences affect health across different communities, has more than 15,000 members who have expressed interest in participating in research studies about health and wellness. By engaging with the WHY cohort, the College may be able to help people self-report symptoms and provide information about COVID-19 testing.

 

Meanwhile, Guy and UKCOP associate dean Frank Romanelli are focusing on building a protocol for a hydroxychloroquine-azithromycin clinical trial that would assess the use of the drugs in both the outpatient and inpatient settings and among patients with non-severe COVID-19 infection. This effort will examine the potential efficacy of the combination of hydroxychloroquine-azithromycin with the hopes of providing conclusive evidence that it reduces the severity and duration of COVID-19. Jared Hammill, a research assistant professor from the College, Zach Porterfield from UK's College of Medicine, and Mitu Karki-Maskey and Alice Thornton from UK HealthCare are also involved with this project.

 

Known for their outside-the-box approach, Guy and his team are aiming high. The College’s push for innovative and bold ideas comes at a time of considerable uncertainty but allows for increased collaboration among UK’s faculty.

 

“The College of Pharmacy is in a unique position to address this pandemic from all sides,” says Guy. “We are one of the strongest colleges in the world when it comes to pharmacy—with a history of innovative education and research. We also value and understand the necessity of scientific collaboration. We’re in an area with significant health disparities, some of the worst in the U.S. So, when something of this scale affects everyone we know, it's our job to rise to the occasion." 

 

Additional contributors to research for the CURE Alliance include Heather Bush, Ph.D. (College of Public Health); Ann Coker, Ph.D. (College of Medicine), Rebecca Dutch, Ph.D. (College of Medicine); Matt Gentry, Ph.D. (College of Medicine); Lou Hersh, Ph.D. (College of Medicine); C. Darrell Jennings, MD (College of Medicine); Craig Vander Kooi, Ph.D. (College of Medicine); Kathleen Winter, Ph.D. (College of Public Health); and many others. 

 

By Kristie Colón & Jacob Lewis