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SISSA projects and COVID-19

15 May 2020

Since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic SISSA scientists have been working at different levels to help understanding the virus, finding new therapies and developing strategies to contain its diffusion. Here are some of the ongoing projects.

D2STEP - Data-Driven Statistical framework for Tracking the Epidemic Potential - PI: Andrea De Simone
The key epidemiological variable characterizing the transmission potential of an infectious disease is the time-dependent reproduction number R, defined as the expected number of secondary cases caused by each infected individual. Accurate determination of R is of paramount importance during an epidemic outbreak. D2STEP aims at developing a new statistical framework for a reliable, completely data-driven real-time estimation of R and, thus, at designing a performance metric aiming to assess the real-time effectiveness of the measures adopted to contain the diffusion of epidemic infectious diseases.

SoundGlove - Touch-to-sound device for enhanced security in handling coronavirus materials - PI: Mathew E. Diamond
SoundGlove is a wearable device that converts skin contact into a readily interpretable acoustic signal. The principal application is to augment the security of dangerous manual work involving COVID-19 patients and materials, thus reducing the risk of exposure of the medical or laboratory workers. By use of SoundGlove, the worker hears their own manipulation of the object, sensing shape, compliance, texture etc. as a boost to the visual feedback. The project is carried out in collaboration with Cynexo.

Nanotechnology based diagnostics to detect SARS-CoV-2 antibodies - PI: Paul Heppenstall
In order to fully understand how widespread COVID-19 is in a population it is important to know who has been infected by the virus, even if they have mild or no symptoms. This can be achieved by using serological tests which detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in blood samples. This project aims at developing new serological tests based upon nanotechnology to detect SARS-CoV-2 proteins. This work will lead to inexpensive and rapid tests, which allow for parallel screening of large numbers of samples. The project is carried out in collaboration with Elettra-Sincrotrone.

COVID-19 Fast Screening - PI: Alessandro Laio
Many diseases triggered by viral infections determine specific and often unique volatile organic compounds (VOCs) signatures in the expiration of a person. This project aims to develop a fast screening diagnostic method based on the analysis of these VOCs. This method, if validated, will allow the screening of potentially COVID-19 infected individuals in a direct, non-invasive and speedy manner, thus reducing or entirely avoiding the use of swabs and related complex and slower laboratory analysis. Moreover, the same approach can be used for future significant mutations or other similar viral infections. The project is carried out in collaboration with CyNexo, Edmund Mach Foundation, University of Rome Tor Vergata, Santa Maria della Misericordia University Hospital, ULSS2 Marca Trevigiana Hospital Hub, Microfox, University of Padua.

MORSE - Mathematical Online Research Seminars and E-learning - PI: Antonio Lerario and Fabio Cavalletti
The extraordinary containment measures enforced by the Italian government to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 made the interactions between researchers and students completely impossible.  The project MORSE aims at diminishing the learning barriers created by the social distancing measures, by creating virtual classes and a virtual collaborative research atmosphere. It will provide SISSA researchers, professors and students with hardware and software necessary for continuing their collaborative research and their training. At the same time, it will make online lessons and seminars available on the internet to a larger audience through an educational portal hosted by SISSA.

Drug design and CoV receptors interactions with human cells - PI: Alessandra Magistrato
An idiosyncratic trait of Coronavirus is the presence of spike glycoproteins on the viral envelope, which mediate the virus binding to specific host receptor, enabling its entry into the human cells. This is considered one of the keys of the exceptional diffusion of the Coronavirus. Taking advantage of the long term experience in simulations of complex biological macromolecules and drug-design of CNR-IOM at SISSA, the project aims at developing novel therapeutic options for SARS-CoV-2 through the screening of existing drugs and small molecules as well as the design of new peptides.

Connection between chemical senses and COVID-19 - PI: Anna Menini
Loss of the sense of smell and taste is a symptom often reported by patients with COVID-19. Discovering its origin could help to understand different aspects of the action of the virus on our organism. The project aims at understanding how frequently people with COVID-19 report this symptom and to verify if smell and taste losses are potential markers for COVID-19 even in the absence of other signs. More than 500 international researchers and clinicians have united to form The Global Consortium of Chemosensory Researchers (GCCR) and have prepared an online questionnaire in 30 different languages to get data from all over the world. Read more

Structural organization of SARS-Cov-2 genome - PI: Cristian Micheletti and Antonio De Simone
The goal of the project is to obtain a structural model for how the genome of SARS-Cov-2 is organised by nucleocapsid proteins. In SARS-Cov-2, genomic RNA folds at the same as it is enveloped by nucleocapsid proteins. The simultaneity of genome folding and packaging processes makes it difficult for conventional modelling approaches to obtain a working structural model. We will tackle it with a multiscale approach, integrating concepts and methods typical of soft matter physics, computational biophysics and material science.

MATH4COVID: bridging math with real data - PI: Gianluigi Rozza
Taking advantage of the long-term experience of SISSA mathLab in projects based on innovation with mathematics, MATH4COVID aims at developing mathematical models of social activities, contacts, trips with 4D graphs moving in space and time in order to evaluate risks. The project is carried out in collaboration with Cineca, regione Umbria and the software house  Webtek.

PsycMed19: Psychological support to health operators during emergencies - PI: Raffaella Rumiati
COVID-19 outbreak in Italy imposed an overwhelming workload as well as emotional burdens on healthcare professionals fighting the epidemic. PsycMed19 aims at analysing the need for psychological support reported by the health care professionals during the COVID-19 outbreak, the type and frequency of the psychological interventions offered to them through the different channels and the devices and means supporting such psychological interventions. The final goal is to identify the best practices implemented and to develop a protocol that allows intervening more effectively in the event of a future health emergency. Read more

Neurological and cognitive deficits in patients with COVID-19 - PI: Raffaella I. Rumiati
Although fever, cough and difficulty breathing are the typical hallmarks of infection with COVID-19, in several countries touched by the pandemic, neurologists are reporting that a small subset of patients with COVID-19 showed brain impairments. This project aims at quantifying the incidence and nature of the neurological symptomatology in patients COVID-19 and evaluating the eventual signs of cognitive decline and neurological deficits in patients after a prolonged assisted respiration. This information will be correlated with imaging and neuroradiological examinations. The Project is carried out in collaboration with ASUGI Udine, AOTS and IRCCS Eugenio Medea.

Monitoring and data-driven evaluation of Covid-19 containment strategies - PI: Giudo Sanguinetti
This project focuses on the data analysis of case incidence in the FVG Region, using statistical and epidemiological models. The main goals are to provide advice as to which additional data should be gathered, to evaluate quantitatively potential interventions using stochastic models and network theory and to advise on new data gathering studies in preparation for the next emergency phases. The project is carried out in collaboration with ICTP and the University of Trieste. Read more

Additional projects are focusing on the development of vectors able to selectively target SARS-CoV-2 infected cells with CRISPR enzyme for antiviral therapy, the role of passive bike training to facilitate respiratory function and the use of UV-lamp for mask sterilisation.