How BSF Grantees in Israel and the United States are Helping to Combat the Coronavirus
In preparing this issue of Vision Magazine, we asked current BSF grantees whether they are responding to the coronavirus. The replies were overwhelming, but that’s not surprising. At BSF, we pride ourselves on selecting the best and the brightest for our grants. It’s only natural that their labs would be working hard to find successful solutions to the issues presented by this worldwide pandemic.
Their responses cover an enormous scope of virus-related issues, from the obvious (such as clinical trials and patient care), to more unique issues (such as how our weather, or even the food we eat, could affect who is more likely to become ill from the virus.)
Also, keep in mind that this list covers only a sampling of the work by our current grantees. A list of every BSF grantee (including our past recipients) involved with fighting the virus would be much larger. (For continuing updates, remember to follow us on Facebook.) While we could not include everyone who responded to our request, and we know that some investigators working on COVID-19 were too busy to respond, we say an enthusiastic thank you – todah rabbah – to all our scientists and researchers, as they provide important answers and solutions to the most wide-spread health crisis of our time.
Lital Alfonta (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) is involved in several pandemic-related projects including development of ultra-sensitive electrochemical biosensors for COVID-19 and coming up with a new strategy and concept for anti-viral vaccines. Lital received a BSF grant in 2014.
Michael Assaf (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) developed a model for the coronavirus spread, using an age-based advanced SEIR-like model. Together with a group of researchers from the Racah Institute, he has used the model to simulate the epidemic. The team compares simulation results with data from Israel and other nations on how the virus is spreading. The researchers use this information to provide daily data and predictions to Israel’s Ministry of Health, and Department of Homeland Security. Assaf has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2018.
Yoav Benjamini (Tel Aviv University) is consulting with several organizations, including Israel’s Ministry of Health (on monitoring virus) and Tel Aviv Medical Center (on short-term prediction of severe cases.) Benjamini has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2016.
Nissim Benvenisty (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is part of a research team working on the search for COVID-19 therapies. His lab’s research is based on the discovery of unique human haploid embryonic stem cells, as well as an atlas of the human genome using sophisticated genome-wide screening. These discoveries and tools will now be utilized to identify the genetic basis for the pathophysiology (physiological process) of the COVID-19 pandemic. Benvenisty has received four BSF grants, most recently in 2015.
Sigal Ben-Yehuda (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is working with several students and investigators to develop a new serological technique to identify a large collection of genes encoding antibodies that render survivors of coronavirus infection immune to the virus. The protective antibody genes will be cloned and used for large scale production to produce antibody cocktails in the hopes of curing the coronavirus infection. Ben-Yehuda has received three BSF grants, most recently in 2017.
Paul Blainey (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard) is involved in several efforts related to the pandemic. He is part of a team adapting its droplet-in-microwell array platform from bacterial growth assays to viral surveillance and diagnostic assays. The team is readying a respiratory virus panel suitable for surveillance and diagnostic applications in the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also assisting with carrying out an optical pooled genetic screen of COVID-19 infected cells to identify dependencies of the virus on host factors across stages of the viral life cycle. Blaney received a BSF grant in 2017.
Brandon J. Dekosky (University of Kansas) is part of a team performing screenings of antibody responses in COVID-19 patients for therapeutic drug discovery and to accelerate vaccine design. Dekosky received a BSF grant in 2017.
David B. Goldstein (Columbia University) is part of a team working on a novel therapeutic direction for COVID-19, focused on transcriptional regulation of host viral entry proteins. They have determined that a key protein, TMPRSS2, appears to be the most suitable candidate for modulation and that it can be strongly downregulated with hormonal treatment. Goldstein has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2017.
Moshe Gottlieb (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) is advising Israeli manufacturers on how to produce silica-coated superparamagnetic beads, which are a major component in the purification and analysis of nucleic acids in samples for detection of COVID-19. As virus testing increases, these beads are in high demand. Based on his past activity involving the synthesis of such particles, Gottlieb is helping manufacturers to keep up with increasing requests for the beads. Gottlieb has received five BSF grants, most recently in 2018.
Brian Helmuth (Northeastern University) and Gil Rilov (Israel Oceanographic Limnological Research) have helped develop an online curriculum that includes several courses relating to the pandemic. It is already being used by US Coast Guard personnel to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and treat people who have contracted the disease. Helmuth and Gil Rilov received a BSF grant in 2016.
David Katoshevski (Ben Gurion University of the Negev), Yuval Cavari (Soroka Medical Center), Ephraim Gutmark (University of Cincinnati), Iris Gutmark-Little (Children’s Hospital Medical Center) and Rafael Tadmor (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) are extending their BSF-funded project in response to the virus. The project focuses on airway secretions, which are already major factors in bronchitis, COPD, cystic fibrosis and many other diseases. The BSF project now also focuses on a method/device to clear secretions from respiratory systems of ventilated and unventilated COVID-19 patients. Clearing secretions efficiently is a keystone component in treating respiratory diseases, due to the harmful effect of secretions to oxygenation and ventilation. The original BSF grant was awarded in 2017.
Steven Kleinstein (Yale) is analyzing large-scale B cell (antibody) receptor repertoire sequencing experiments from COVID-19 samples. This work will help identify binding/neutralizing antibodies and provide insights into how the immune response is associated with disease progression. Kleinstein has received three BSF grants, most recently in 2017.
Sergei Koralov (New York University School of Medicine) is helping to set up a program to gain better insight into immune responses to COVID-19 using multi-modal high-throughput single cell sequencing. Investigators will be analyzing samples across different stages of disease and compare immune responses to COVID-19 with those to influenza. Koralov received a BSF grant in 2017.
Louise Laurent (University of California San Diego) is contributing to a San Diego-wide effort to screen for COVID-19 infections. Her lab’s main contribution involves performing high-throughput qRT-PCR for the COVID-19 viral RNA genome to help detect infection. (qRT-PCR is a laboratory-based technique that permits reliable detection and quantification of a targeted DNA molecule.) Laurent received a BSF grant in 2015.
Angel Porgador (Ben-Gurion University) heads the university’s Coronavirus Task Force. He is involved with several virus-related projects, including development of high throughput COVID-19 testing. One form of testing, called “pooling,” was first used to screen groups of U.S. army soldiers for syphilis during World War II, and is now being revamped to stem the spread of COVID-19. It involves sophisticated algorithms and futuristic robots that can accurately screen up to eight samples at once – saving both time and money. Porgador has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2015.
Marc Rothenberg (Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center) is involved with several COVID-19 related projects, including a collaboration with the National Institutes of Health to learn how the pandemic impacts individuals with rare diseases, their families and their caregivers. He is also working on a project focusing on connections between the virus and serine protease inhibitors. Data collected from the project suggests that these inhibitors, particularly Alpha-1 Anti-Trypsin (A1AT), which is an FDA-approved drug, might be effective in limiting and/or treating COVID-19. Rothenberg has received three BSF grants, most recently in 2015.
Maayan Salton (Hebrew University) is part of a large collaboration focused on increasing virus testing capacity in populations with a low infection rate. They have already tested more than 2,000 individuals, using 311 RNA extraction and RT-PCR kits. Salton received a BSF grant in 2017.
Ora Schueler-Furman (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is working on identifying and analyzing potential new human receptor targets of COVID-19 and developing peptide-based and antibody-based molecules to manipulate the virus-host interaction. Her lab is working in collaboration with other labs to produce leads for diagnosis and drugs on the one hand, and to improve our general understanding of this and related viruses on the other. Schueler-Furman has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2015.
Hanoch Senderowitz and Jordan Chill (Bar Ilan University) are working toward the discovery of small molecules able to inhibit coronavirus infection. They are doing that by combining Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and virtual screening in order to identify molecules, verify their biological activities and clarify how the virus binds to the viral spike protein (the major surface protein that the virus uses to bind to a receptor — another protein that acts like a doorway into a human cell.) Senderowitz received a BSF grant in 2013. Chill has received three BSF grants, most recently in 2017.
Julia Shifman (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is part of a consortium of scientists developing proteins-based inhibitors to all 26 proteins that make up the COVID-19 genome. Using a combination of computational modelling and experimental directed evolution, the team plans to engineer inhibitors to COVID-19 proteins. These inhibitors will present a toolbox of molecules that will be used to validate therapeutic potential of various targets in COVID-19. Shifman received a BSF grant in 2017.
Jeffery Townsend (Yale) is part of a team looking into a new approach to study zoonotic emergence, which includes development of diseases resulting from human connections with animals. (COVID-19 is believed to have formed in bats.) They hope to illuminate not only general rules of how zoonosis evolves, but also reveal genomic regions critical to the persistence of these viruses in humans. Townsend received a BSF grant in 2018.
Ran Barzilay (University of Pennsylvania) is part of a team that launched an online research website, covid19resilience.org, to study stress and resiliency during the pandemic. The site includes a brief online resilience survey and provides immediate feedback to responders. Thousands of people have already taken the survey, generating data that will improve understanding of what makes some people resilient and others vulnerable to anxiety and depression during and following this stressful time. Barzilay received a BSF grant in 2017.
Eva Gilboa-Schechtman (Bar Ilan University) is conducting studies examining the impact of cognitive processing on emotional, behavioral, and cognitive response to social distancing. She is looking to understand vulnerability and resilience factors at a time when people are distancing themselves from people in their lives, and the public at large. Gilboa-Schechtman received her BSF grant in 2013.
Doron Gothelf (Tel Aviv University) helped to survey more than 1,000 Israeli physicians on how they are coping with the pandemic. The findings have several important potential public health implications for reducing anxiety among physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as resilience training and efforts by healthcare organizations’ leadership to reduce the stress associated with fear of being infected. Gothelf has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2017.
Guy Hochman (IDC Herzeliya) is involved in several projects related to COVID-19. One project compares self-interested and pro-socially framed messages encouraging people to wash their hands. Another project examines the moral perceptions of the distribution of health care resources among the young and the elderly during the coronavirus crisis. Hochman received a BSF grant in 2018.
Danny Horesh (Bar Ilan University) and Adam Brown (The New School for Social Research) are involved with an international study examining the psychological implications of the pandemic. The study involves participants in several countries including Israel and the US. The investigators are assessing multiple factors including stress, anxiety, and quality of life, and looking at predictors of distress and well-being. Horesh and Brown also published an opinion piece in the journal Psychological Trauma addressing the need for advanced trauma research and clinical work because of COVID-19. Horesh and Brown received a BSF grant in 2018.
Thomas E. Malloy (Rhode Island College) and Avraham Kluger (Hebrew University) are expanding their BSF- supported project, which focuses on connections between listening and accuracy. They were already studying perceptions of listening quality among family and friends before the pandemic. Now, they are studying those perceptions among people who are quarantined and isolated. As more people use Zoom to communicate with family, friends, and colleagues, they are also running a study on how Zoom affects listening. Their BSF grant was awarded in 2018.
Eyal Pe’er (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is involved in a research project examining how people of different social groups respond to policies (a.k.a. “nudges”) asking for compliance to health regulations (such as social distancing and hygiene changes such as increased hand washing.) Pe’er has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2017.
Anat Perry (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is looking into how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting empathy toward others, close and far. She is also involved in a multi-site international study examining social and moral aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perry received a BSF grant in 2016.
Ran Polak (Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital) and Amir Tirosh (Sheba Medical Center) are working on evaluating the impact of home cooking intervention on nutritional intake and weight. Considering the social isolation and stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, they are looking into whether eating behaviors are changing, and whether increased home cooking can help people cope with stress. Polak and Tirosh received a BSF grant in 2017.
Tomer Shechner (University of Haifa) is involved in a study examining the effects of COVID-19 on adolescents. Shechner’s lab team is using online questionnaires that were developed as part of an international collaborative study. They assess changes before and after the COVID-19 crisis, using parents and youth self-reports. The team will follow participants during and immediately after the COVID-19 crisis. Shechner received a BSF grant in 2015.
Brad Wyble (Penn State University) is involved with a Penn State effort to design face masks to distribute to hospitals and other organizations. He has also done 3D printing of face shields and masks for care personnel. Looking forward, he is part of a team developing an academy for summer education in computational neuroscience https://neuromatch.io/academy/, and he is helping postdocs find new positions over the summer, since so many career outlets were closed off. Wyble received a BSF grant in 2015.
Shlomit Yuval-Greenberg (Tel Aviv University) is conducting a study focusing on the relation between anxiety, stress and time perception. The project examines the ways participants assess how much time has elapsed since the COVID-19 crisis began and how this assessment is affected by stress and anxiety. Yuval-Greenberg has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2015.
Benjamin Dekel (Sheba Medical Center Israel) is part of a team developing models that would allow studying the cells of humans infected by the virus. The project could lead to therapeutic drug screens (the measurement of specific drugs and/or their breakdown products at timed intervals to maintain a relatively constant concentration of the medication in the blood) that have the potential to bypass animal testing. Dekel received a BSF grant in 2017.
Ronen Hazan (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Ran Nir-Paz (Hadassah Medical Organization) are working together as part of a clinical trial for possible treatment of COVID-19. Nir-Paz is also involved with groups that provide models for future mitigation of COVID-19 in Israel.
Allan Just (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai – New York) and Itai Kloog (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) are expanding their BSF-funded collaboration between labs in geography and public health to contribute to epidemiological modeling for resource use planning in the Mount Sinai Health System, the largest healthcare provider in New York City. The team is using machine learning to predict patient outcomes for research tools that will support improved clinical decision making. They are also extending and updating their satellite-based air pollution models to address important epidemiological questions about how air pollution may impact both risk of infection and disease severity. Just and Kloog received their BSF grant in 2017.
Nir Ben-Tal (Tel Aviv University) is part of a team targeting the deISGylase (nsp3) enzyme of COVID-19, in the hopes of discovering drugs that could help ease spread of the virus. Ben-Tal received a BSF grant in 2019.
Lucio Frydman (Weizmann Institute) is part of a team focusing on the structures of RNA fragments extracted from the COVID-19 genome. Preliminary results have provided correlations that are essential for unraveling the structure and binding of these RNAs under physiological conditions. The team has joined with a Frankfurt-based international network studying COVID-19 structure and binding. Frydman has received two BSF grant, most recently in 2014.
Amos Danielli (Bar Ilan University) is using magnetic modulation biosensing technology at his Optical Imaging and Biosensing Laboratory to develop rapid molecular and serological assays that significantly reduce the diagnosis time for the virus. (An assay is an analysis done to determine the presence of a substance and the amount of that substance.) Danielli received a BSF grant in 2017.
Tamir Tuller (Tel Aviv University) is part of a team developing a system for possible treatment of COVID-19 and future viral pandemics. The system is based on immunoglobulin sequencing from COVID-19 patients that is used for designing a system for efficient Immunoglobulin production. (Immunoglobulins are proteins in the serum and cells of the immune system, which function as antibodies.) Tuller received a BSF grant in 2015.
Aeyal Raz (Rambam Health Care Campus) was part of a team testing the feasibility of using a single ventilator on two patients at the same time. As expected, they discovered that ventilation did not spread equally between the lungs and that this process could harm patients. The team wrote a paper to report its results, and to discourage this practice among critical care practitioners. Raz received a BSF grant in 2017.
Orlin D. Velev (North Carolina State University) hopes to develop a new material that can be rapidly scaled up to supply the market with inexpensive “coronavirus-impermeable” nanofibrillar that could be used on personal protective equipment (PPE) such as filters, face masks and protective clothing. The project involves a class of polymer materials – soft dendritic colloids – that would add a protective layer to repel droplets landing on clothing or nonwoven surfaces. Velev received a BSF grant in 2018.
Shahar Kvatinsky (Technion – Israel Institute of Technology) is involved in research on designing and building a low-cost detection system for COVID-19, based on the CRISPR system. (CRISPR technology is a tool for editing genomes. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. Its potential applications include treating and preventing the spread of diseases.) Kvatinsky has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2016.
Nir Gavish (Technion – Israel Institute of Technology) is part of a team that has designed a simulator that assesses the ramifications of Israel’s various policy decisions on the spread of the coronavirus. The simulator incorporates data from nations around whole world, enabling its users to assess the ramifications of different policy directions involving many issues, including comprehensive lockdowns, isolating certain age groups, complete or partial reopening of the school system, requiring protective gear as social distancing measures, hand washing and wearing masks, as well as the possibility of resuming air travel. Gavish received a BSF grant in 2016.
Shing-Tung Yau (Harvard) is establishing a mathematical model describing the spread of COVID-19. The model is designed to clarify the diffusion phenomena of COVID-19 transmission. (Diffusion is the net movement of anything from a region of higher concentration to a region of lower concentration.) Yau has received two BSF grants, most recently in 2014.
Beni Cukurel (Technion – Israel Institute of Technology) is part of a team designing additively manufactured emergency turbine-based ventilators. The goal is to develop a design that can be manufactured simply as a single piece that would not require assembly. It would function even without electrical power, and would fill critical gaps if existing ventilator units become insufficient. Cukurel received a BSF grant in 2016.
Thomas K. Hemmick (Stony Brook University) is using his lab’s 3D printer to make face shields that are donated to Stony Brook University Hospital staff. Hemmick has received three BSF grants, most recently in 2016.
Exact and Physical Sciences
Vincent Poor (Princeton) is part of a team that developed a new model developed by Princeton and Carnegie Mellon researchers to improve tracking of epidemics by accounting for mutations in diseases. Now they are using that model in relation to the coronavirus. They are looking into interventions such as quarantines and isolation – particularly how they affect the epidemic’s spread. Poor received a BSF grant in 2018.
Atmospheric, Ocean & Earth Sciences
Dorita Rostkier-Edelstein (Israel Institute for Biological Research) is studying the relationship between atmospheric conditions and the rate of new COVID-19 cases, as well as death rates among critically ill patients. She and her collaborators pay attention to humidity and temperature. Their aim is to discover any weather-dependent parameters that could be associated with the coronavirus and use them to make better predictions concerning future spreads. Rostkier-Edelstein received a BSF grant in 2018.