COVID-19 response Clinical research
Halting the spread
When it comes to the study of coronaviruses, Loyola University Chicago researchers were ahead of the curve. Now they're playing an important role in the study of COVID-19.
It was New Year’s Eve 2020, the last day of another tumultuous year, when Tom Gallagher first heard about a concerning outbreak in China. He woke up the following morning with a fresh email from a virologist colleague at the University of Iowa. What little the pair could piece together pointed to a novel coronavirus, a single-stranded RNA virus that can cause a variety of diseases, and one that seemed transmittable between humans. This was disturbing, to say the least.
For three decades, Gallagher—a professor of microbiology and immunology at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine—has studied how coronaviruses infect different cell types or tissues. (The technical term is viral tropism.) That January email jogged a memory from years back, about a conversation he’d had with another well-known investigator who’d examined coronavirus strands in cows and pigs: “If you saw what these animal viruses do to domesticated livestock, and you thought a similar virus could get to humans? You’d be really alarmed.”
Like Gallagher, Susan Baker has spent 30 years trying to understand the sacks of code that make up coronaviruses; her life’s work was rarely at the center of global conversation. As winter gave way to spring and the coronavirus skipped around the world with bracing speed, Baker—also a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stritch—found herself playing a little game: she’d flip on NPR and start counting. “Every time I turned on the radio, no matter what time of day, I’d hear the words COVID-19 or coronavirus before I got to 10 seconds,” she says. “That’s not my typical experience.”
What came to be called SARS-CoV-2 had forced Chinese lockdowns before it brutalized Iran and northern Italy. By mid-March, it had penetrated American life so deeply that Loyola, like colleges everywhere, was forced to suspend its in-person operations for the safety of its community. While students and colleagues dispersed, a handful of brave and resourceful researchers at the Center For Translational Research and Education (CTRE), on the Health Sciences Campus (HSC), secured an exemption from the University administration to access their labs.
Inside, they buckled down. Chinese scientists had publicly released the complete genome of the virus two months prior, data that could be simulated and synthesized in a lab. “Just like the rest of the world, I was hoping the virus would be quickly extinguished,” Gallagher remembers. “But once we had the sequence for the virus and the tools to study it, I thought there was a possibility we could be of service.”