Making Strides in COVID-19 Research

covid-19 graphic

While UF College of Dentistry didactic learning transitioned to online delivery, and patient care shifted to emergency-only care for two months, many research activities were also halted throughout the college, university and country throughout the spring as much of the world locked down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. A number of researchers, deemed essential, began working on projects surrounding the coronavirus, including five UF College of Dentistry researchers working on three new projects related to COVID-19 as the country’s brightest scientists and researchers hastily strive to understand the disease and develop a vaccine.

Robert A. Burne, PhD | Associate Dean for Research & Distinguished Professor, Department of Oral Biology

A pic of Robert Burne
Dr. Robert A. Burne

Burne’s COVID-19 work is supported by a CTSI COVID Pilot Project and examines whether certain bacteria that are abundant members of the oral/nasopharyngeal microbiome can interfere with the ability of the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2, to engage with the host, focusing on disruption of spike protein engagement with the viral receptor ACE-2. Burne’s project is a COVID-19-specific spin-off of an NIDCR-funded project that explores novel probiotic mechanisms of beneficial oral bacteria, in collaboration with UFCD researchers Marcelle Nascimento, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., and David Culp, Ph.D.

Josephine Esquivel-Upshaw, DMD, MS | Professor, Department of Restorative Dental Sciences Division of Prosthodontics

Samira Camargo, DDS | Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Restorative Dental Sciences Division of Prosthodontics

Edward Chan, PhD | Professor, Department of Oral Biology at UFCD & Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at UF College of Medicine

Dr. Josephine Esquivel-Upshaw

Esquivel-Upshaw, Camargo and Chan are collaborating with researchers in the UF Departments of Chemical Engineering (Dr. Fan Ren), Electrical Engineering (Dr. Jenshan Lin) and the UF College of Medicine (Dr. Steve Ghivizzani) to develop a point-of-care COVID-19 sensor capable of detecting the novel coronavirus in saliva. Saliva has been shown to be a more reliable medium in detecting the SARS-CoV-2 and will eliminate the need for the invasive nasopharyngeal testing currently being used as the gold standard.

The sensor is a transistor that can measure the spike protein of the virus. The sensor can detect very small amounts of the virus in saliva so there is no need for signal amplification like the current gold standard for testing. The sensor is a true point of care, as the result can be ready in 30 seconds.

Zsolt Toth, PhD | Assistant Professor, Department of Oral Biology

Dr. Zsolt Toth

Toth’s lab generally focuses on studying virus-host interactions that determine outcomes of primary infections by viral pathogens, with a specific interest in the cancer-causing DNA virus, Human Herpesvirus-8, also called Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, or KSHV. The lab studies how KSHV replicates, evades the immune system and establishes life-long infections and life-threatening diseases, like cancer, particularly in immunocompromised people. Amid the current public health emergency, Dr. Toth has taken to researching SARS-CoV-2 in a similar fashion. While COVID-19 is a RNA virus whose replication mechanism in the body is very different from that of KSHV, ultimately the lab hopes to discover targets for new antiviral therapies that can interfere with the host-virus interactions in order to reduce replication and transmission of the virus in the human population.

“We are excited to have these new projects focused on understanding, diagnosing and reducing the effects of COVID-19 on our society, and are confident that our college will continue to work with others at UF to develop novel approaches to combat COVID-19 and to improve overall health,” Burne said.

In addition to launching new projects related to COVID-19, the UFCD faculty and staff have been hard at work writing grant applications and manuscripts and designing websites for their research laboratories. In fact, the number of research proposals that went out in March 2020 was higher than the month March each of the last five years at UFCD.

For the third straight year, the college ranks No. 5 among all U.S. dental schools in National Institutes of Health funding in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research, while UFCD checked in No. 3 in National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research funding for the last fiscal year.​