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Pandemic preparation: researchers explore new antivirals and reproductive health

Pandemic preparation: researchers explore new antivirals and reproductive health

This is Part 3 in an ongoing series of stories related to COVID-19 research and education initiatives. For more, visit Part 1 and Part 2. 

From developing new antivirals to assessing the impact of vaccination on reproductive health, Queen's Health Sciences' faculty and students are helping us prepare for the next potential pandemic.

The following Q&A offers a glimpse into two such researchers and their work: Dr. Che Colpitts, Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences; and Dr. Maria P. Velez, Associate Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology:

Dr. Maria P. Velez
Dr. Maria P. Velez

Q: What is your research focus?

Dr. Colpitts: Several projects in our lab are focused on developing new antiviral countermeasures for RNA viruses with pandemic potential. RNA viruses such as coronaviruses (e.g., SARS-CoV-2) and flaviviruses (e.g., dengue virus) pose a considerable threat to human health, with few or no antivirals available. Furthermore, RNA viruses are often transmittable from animals to humans - making them difficult to predict or prepare for. While conventional antiviral development has focused on a “one bug, one drug” approach, we aim to develop broadly acting antivirals that may be effective against multiple unrelated RNA viruses, including those that may emerge in future. Our goal is to identify shared approaches that viruses use to interact with their target cells in the body to promote virus infection or cause disease.

Dr: Velez: The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology leads a strong research program on women's reproductive health. Early on the COVID-19 vaccination program, rumours about a potential negative impact of the COVID-19 vaccination on miscarriage and infertility might have affected vaccination uptake among people of reproductive age - especially pregnant women and those considering pregnancy. We obtained CIHR funding to study the effect of COVID-19 vaccination on spontaneous miscarriage, induced abortion, infertility, and abnormal menstrual bleeding using health administrative databases across Ontario.

Q: Talk about your project(s)?

Dr. Velez: During the past months, we have developed algorithms to identify pregnant individuals, miscarriages, and induced abortion rates using linkage of health administrative databases in Ontario. A first manuscript has been published. We have completed a second study on the association between the COVID-19 vaccines and abortion (spontaneous and induced). The manuscript is currently under review. We will continue with the analysis on COVID-19 vaccine and female infertility, and COVID-19 vaccine and abnormal menstrual bleeding.

Dr. Colpitts: One research area in our lab looks at the roles of sugars (glycans) that naturally coat the surfaces of our cells, and how coronaviruses use these sugars to attach to our cells as a first step in infection. We demonstrated in a recent publication that blocking virus attachment to these sugars with an ingredient found in green tea stops infection by multiple coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, MERS-CoV, and bat coronaviruses that may emerge in future. We are now working to design antiviral drug candidates that mimic sugar structures. This is in collaboration with the lab of Dr. Chantelle Capicciotti (Queen's, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences / Chemistry / Surgery) and was supported by Rapid Response COVID-19 funding from Queen's, as well as funding from the J.P. Bickell Foundation.

A second research theme in our lab is focused on investigating whether we can non-specifically boost immune responses in the body to help cells resist viral infection. We have three projects focused on this area, supported by funding from the Banting Research Foundation and CIHR. We are also investigating how highly pathogenic viruses (e.g., SARS-CoV-2, dengue virus, Ebola virus) cause cytokine storm, a detrimental over-abundant inflammatory response during severe viral disease.

Dr. Che Colpitts
Dr. Che Colpitts

Q: How will your research help us learn from the recent pandemic and prepare us for the next one?

Dr. Colpitts: Our research will help us prepare for the next emerging virus, in that it will aid in the development of new broad-spectrum antiviral countermeasures that will protect not only against existing dangerous RNA viruses, but also those that may emerge in future.

Dr. Velez: The frequent exclusion of women of reproductive age from research studies and the lack of assessment of vaccination on reproductive health-related outcomes has led to a lack of information about their health during that period of their lives. Our study will better inform female individuals, healthcare providers and the health system about the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine on reproductive outcomes. The algorithms that we have developed to identify early pregnancy events in large databases, will prepare us to obtain quick data about the safety of vaccines close to or during pregnancy on reproductive outcomes. Our results on COVID-19 and abortion (spontaneous and induced) reinforce the importance of including pregnant women in new vaccine clinical trials, and rapid dissemination about vaccine safety around the time of conception.

Q: Who are your partners?

Dr. Velez: I am collaborating with clinician-scientists from the University of Toronto (Dr. Joel Ray, and Dr. Jeff Kwong) and Dr. Deshayne Fell from the University of Ottawa. We are all scientists at ICES. ICES is an independent, non-profit research institute funded by an annual grant from the Ontario Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ministry of Long-Term Care (MLTC). ICES leads innovative population-based studies across Ontario to evaluate healthcare delivery and outcomes. We are fortunate to have an ICES site at Queen's that provides quality research support.

Dr. Colpitts: Our key collaborators at Queen's are Dr. Capicciotti, Dr. Charles Graham (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), Dr. Katrina Gee (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), and Dr. Andrew Evans (Chemistry). Outside of Queen's, Dr. Arinjay Banerjee (Vaccine and infectious Disease Organization, University of Saskatchewan) has been an important partner in our work.

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