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Close to $1 million in federal funding for COVID-19 detection and treatment research

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: June 25, 2020 10:00 a.m.

Dr. Mohan Babu, associate professor of biochemistry, received $937,950 from CIHR for work into detecting and treating COVID-19.
Dr. Mohan Babu, associate professor of biochemistry, received $937,950 from CIHR for work into detecting and treating COVID-19. Credit: U of R Photography

There are more than 8 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus worldwide. Concerns for the future continue to grow as no licensed vaccines or effective therapies to date (or expected any time soon) exist and there is an ongoing scarcity in reliable diagnostics–especially when testing asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic cases.

Now the University of Regina’s Dr. Mohan Babu, an associate professor of biochemistry, has received $937,950 in federal funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to tackle head on the therapeutic and diagnostic gaps associated with the virus.

“This CIHR funding is an important step towards helping a team of dedicated scientists to develop peptide therapeutics and point-of-care diagnostics to effectively and rapidly contain the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Babu, who is working with a team of researchers from six different research institutions across Canada.  

“We are studying how SARS-CoV-2 hijacks host proteins during infection, with the goal of developing antiviral peptides to block the virus from entering or replicating the human cells.”

Peptides are short amino acids that make up proteins in our cells. These proteins perform many critical roles in our bodies, including helping to form antibodies that help fight infections.

“In addition to the therapeutic arm, our funding also focuses on a less invasive and a faster way to diagnose the virus,” says Babu. “Dr. Walter Siqueira, who heads the Salivary Proteomics Research Laboratory in the College of Dentistry at the University of Saskatchewan, is leading the diagnostic portion of the project. We know that asymptomatic patients are going undetected, so we need more sensitive diagnostic testing for them, and also for those who are pre-symptomatic or mildly symptomatic,” says Babu.

Babu says that with Siqueira the researchers are developing a low-cost diagnostic test to detect the viral peptides in the saliva of patients, which will be able to detect early COVID-19.

“This could be powerful because we can use the tool in long-term care homes, remote locations, hospitals, and clinical centres, and to detect COVID-19 patients in low- and middle-income countries,” says Babu. “Plus, the diagnosis will take less than five minutes between the sample drop and the test results.”

Dr. Kathleen McNutt, University of Regina Vice-President (Research), says this CIHR award is an investment in extraordinarily talented researchers who have the opportunity to positively contribute to a worldwide health emergency.

“There is still so much we don’t know about the novel coronavirus, and the CIHR funding that Dr. Babu and his team of collaborators received, and the research they will be able to conduct because of it, will help us learn more about quickly diagnosing and treating the virus. Ultimately, this research has the potential to save lives here and around the world. What is more critical than that?”

Babu’s team includes researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, including its VIDO-InterVac (Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre), Carleton University, the University of Toronto, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the University of Manitoba, and Western University.

CIHR announced the funding of 139 projects across Canada for a total of $109 million under their COVID-19 May 2020 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity.

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