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The COVID-19 pandemic: science’s finest hour

A Letter from Hermann Haller, President of the MDI Biological Laboratory

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused serious damage to biological research, the toll of which has yet to be reckoned. Here at the MDI Biological Laboratory, a small, independent research institution on the coast of Maine with a focus on regenerative medicine, research has been slowed, person-to-person collaborations with visiting scientists have been curtailed and untold hours have been spent developing policies and programs to protect faculty and staff and the animal models they study and care for.

Restrictions on international travel have hit us especially hard given the international nature of our campus and our role as a convener of scientists from around the world for seminars, courses and conferences in regenerative medicine, nearly all of which have been cancelled. Denied entry to the United States, one recently recruited faculty member is conducting research in Europe, while a newly hired post-doctoral fellow is stranded in India. I am prohibited from traveling to the United States from Germany, where I head the nephrology department at Hannover Medical School.

We are fortunate that Maine has escaped the brunt of the pandemic, with an infection rate lower than every state except Hawaii and Vermont. As of this writing, there have been 3866 confirmed or probable cases and 121 deaths since mid-March, most of them far to the south. No faculty or staff have contracted the disease. We are coping well, which is not a surprise given how adept bench scientists are with dealing with setbacks – indeed, this ability might almost be considered our stock in trade! After an initial period in which faculty members worked from home on data analysis, papers and grant applications, they are returning to their labs. Research achievements are taking place: of particular relevance is our research on the glycocalyx, a covering surrounding the membranes of many mammalian cells that is a potential target for COVID-19 treatments. Our collaborations have resumed, thanks to virtual platforms like Zoom. Our courses in bioinformatics, in particular, have benefited from the shift to a virtual platform: having discovered that learning is advanced by the ability to see students’ computer screens without having to awkwardly peer over their shoulders, faculty members are planning to make virtual learning a standard feature of future bioinformatics courses.

But if the pandemic has presented challenges, it has also created a teachable moment.  After being the target of so much ignorance, misunderstanding and even vitriol, science is now experiencing its finest hour. But we need to build on public support for our epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, public health officials and research scientists by learning from what we are going through. The first and most critical lesson is the importance of basic research. The pandemic has taught us that just because research doesn’t have an immediate application doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future. The COVID-19 (officially SARS-CoV-2) pandemic is the third lethal coronavirus outbreak in less than 20 years, after SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2002–2003 and 2012, respectively. Research on vaccines for these strains was essentially abandoned for various reasons, which was a big mistake. If we had a better understanding of the mechanisms of protection for these diseases, we now might be closer to a vaccine. We would also be better prepared for outbreaks that have yet to emerge. Another lesson is that we can translate research findings into therapies much faster than we thought. Nearly 30 vaccines are in various stages of clinical trials worldwide with the first trials being launched within only months of the discovery of the virus, which shows how fast we can move when we want to. It also appears that the development process can be fast-tracked without significant risks to human health. Finally, our experiences have led us to fully appreciate the crucial importance of scientific data: the fear and anxiety of the early days of the pandemic were exacerbated by the spread of misinformation.

With regard to regenerative medicine, we have a specific lesson to learn. At the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 was thought to be a respiratory disease. But we now know that its effects are systemic, and that they are caused in part by damage to the small blood vessels. In addition to the lungs, the virus attacks the kidneys, heart, intestinal tissue and more. Medical research has often focused on atherosclerosis and other diseases of the large blood vessels at the expense of research on the microcirculation. The pandemic has taught us that we need to improve our understanding of the physiology and pathology of the small blood vessels, especially those of the kidneys. Up to 30% of patients hospitalized in China and New York (USA) developed moderate to severe kidney damage, which can in turn affect the brain, heart, liver, lungs and other organ systems. This is where our research on the glycocalyx, which plays a vital role in vascular health, comes in. Organ vascularization will be the subject of an international seminar at the MDI Biological Laboratory in the fall. If we understand how damage to the microcirculation contributes to disease, we can gain a better understanding of healing – and of regeneration.

A final, often-overlooked benefit of the pandemic is the luxury of time. Quarantining at home, without the distractions, interruptions and time demands of social activities, office life and daily commutes, scientists have the freedom of mind for reflection and discovery. Isaac Newton developed his seminal theories while isolated at home in 1665–1666 during a University of Cambridge (UK) shutdown due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. During that time, he discovered differential and integral calculus, formulated a theory of universal gravitation and explored optics. That time in Newton’s life is called his “annus mirabilis,” or “year of wonders.” Though time will tell, I would venture to say that the terrible toll of our modern plague will be offset by our own year of wonders in the form of a rich harvest of new scientific knowledge.

A Letter from Hermann Haller, President of the MDI Biological Laboratory

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