UToledo scientists are pursuing new treatments, searching
for biomarkers that could help physicians better understand
disease progression, exploring the body’s immune response to
the virus, and investigating the intricacies of the virus
itself in hopes of helping build a vaccine.
A research task force led by a pair of veteran medical
scientists in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences has
been established to foster collaboration and share resources
and ideas across the University. More than 100 individuals —
including faculty from the UToledo colleges of Pharmacy and
Pharmaceutical Sciences, Nursing, Health and Human Services,
Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Engineering — have
joined the conversation.
“Our faculty have really stepped forward to tackle the
COVID-19 pandemic in a meaningful way,” said Dr. Christopher
Cooper, dean of the College of Medicine and Life Sciences.
“Ultimately, COVID-19 will be solved by innovative
scientists who figure out how we effectively treat and
The UToledo Medical Research Society on April 17 approved
$25,000 in funding to each of three projects in the College
of Medicine and Life Sciences to jump start research aimed
at confronting COVID-19.
Two of those projects are for clinical trials of drugs that
might reduce the severity of symptoms.
Dr. Cheryl McCullumsmith, professor and chair of the UToledo
Department of Psychiatry and the co-chair of the COVID-19
research task force, is investigating whether fluoxetine, a
commonly prescribed antidepressant, might be a novel
treatment able to prevent serious complications from
The drug, sold under the brand name Prozac, has previously
been shown to block expression of a cell-signaling protein
called Interleukin-6 that can trigger an overwhelming immune
response called a cytokine storm. In COVID-19, cytokine
storms can prove fatal.
“Fluoxetine has extraordinarily strong evidence in its
action as a blocker of IL-6 and cytokine storms in both
animal models of infection and in human illness such as
rheumatoid arthritis and others,” McCullumsmith said. “This
project aims to prevent serious outcomes such as
hospitalization, respiratory failure and death in people
when they are first infected with COVID-19. The goal is to
use an existing drug in a new way to prevent serious
complications of COVID-19 during the time it will take
scientists to develop more lasting solutions, such as
vaccines and antiviral treatments.”
In the second project, Dr. Elissar Andari, assistant
professor of psychiatry, is moving to test whether oxytocin,
a non-steroid hormone known for its role in sociality and
attachment, can reduce hyper-inflammation and boost T-cell
counts to help the body fight off COVID-19.
“Oxytocin is safe and has been prescribed clinically for
more than 50 years,” Andari said. “We believe the mechanisms
by which this drug can have a potential is through its known
anti-inflammatory effects, as well as through its protective
and pro-immune responses. Oxytocin also has known
interaction with the ACE2 system, which is the receptor host
of the virus.”
Both clinical trials are planned to begin after receiving
final approval from the University’s Institutional Review
The third project granted seed funding from the Medical
Research Society will go to a project overseen by Dr. Matam
Vijay-Kumar, associate professor in the Department of
Physiology and Pharmacology.
Vijay-Kumar is investigating flagellin — a bacterial
component previously shown to eliminate viral infection — as
a possible way to harness innate immune responses to fight
the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. His project is
also aimed at identifying biomarkers that can help
clinicians diagnose the early and late stage biomarkers.
“We expect flagellin will serve as an effective therapeutic
to restore impaired early anti-viral immune responses,
prevent viral entry, and protect against lung and heart
damage,” Vijay-Kumar said. “Additionally, we will
investigate to what extent DNase I, an enzyme used to treat
cystic fibrosis patients, will offer protection against
virus-induced lung pathology at late stages.
The Medical Research Society was created in 2014 by a group
of community donors to support biomedical research at
UToledo. Seed funding from the society has helped provide
early data to leverage major grants from nonprofits and
federal funding agencies. To date, UToledo faculty have
received more than $5.1 million in external funding for
projects initially supported by the society.
“It is wonderful to see the engagement of our community
leaders who support the Medical Research Society and who
have funded three of the projects that are aimed at this
scourge,” Cooper said. “This funding will allow our
researchers to fast-track these crucial projects.”