Boston University’s Top COVID-19 Research Breakthroughs of 2020

By Molly Gluck and Sari Cohen

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the globe, Boston University researchers sprung into action. A team of scientists at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) was the first in Boston to start research on live samples of the coronavirus — and since then, researchers across the University have dropped other projects to join the worldwide effort against COVID-19. Read below for Boston University’s most significant coronavirus-related research developments from the past year, starting with the most recent.

What are different states doing about COVID-19? Boston University School of Public Health’s Julia Raifman has the answers. The Assistant Professor of health law, policy and management leads the team that created the COVID-19 U.S. State Policy Database — cataloging 100 policies enacted by various states and the District of Columbia to combat the medical and financial woes of the pandemic. Raifman explains: “I knew that the harms that COVID and its economic ramifications would cause were so much larger than any one research team, I wanted everyone who could work on these topics to have access to this database if it would help them.” Check out the public database and learn more about how scholars and journalists are using the resource.

One of the biggest and most life-threatening mysteries of the COVID-19 virus is its ability to cause silent hypoxia — a condition when oxygen levels in the body are abnormally low, causing irreparable damage to vital organs. To solve this mystery, Boston University biomedical engineers used computer modeling to determine how and why the lungs stop providing oxygen to the bloodstream. Bela Suki, a Boston University College of Engineering Professor, co-authored the study. Suki and Jacob Herrmann, a research Post-Doctoral Fellow in the lab, looked at a plethora of factors including blood regulation, clotting and air-to-blood flow. Read more.

Researchers discovered that for every 100 excess deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 there were another 36 excess deaths — also likely caused by COVID-19, but in a less obvious manner. Boston University School of Public Health Assistant Professor Andrew Stokes led a team of researchers to analyze the number of deaths in the U.S. between February and September 2020. What did they find? The data suggests that higher mortality rates are inextricably linked with socioeconomic disadvantage and structural racism. Learn more about the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income and minority communities.

As the coronavirus pandemic ripped through through the U.S. in March, scientists at Boston University’s NEIDL and the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CreM) dropped all other research and joined forces to develop the most relevant research model possible for understanding how the virus impacts the lungs. The team engineered living, “breathing” human lung cells from stem cells — called “lung organoids” — for the task. Through this effort, they uncovered the primary pathway that drives inflammation: NFkB. Now, they are looking for a new therapeutic that could block the biological pathway from causing deadly lung inflammation. Learn more about their plan of action to attack the virus.

Did you know one in four American adults are struggling with COVID-related depression symptoms? Boston University School of Public Health Dean Sandro Galea led the first national study in the U.S to look at the change in depression rates as a result of the pandemic. The team uncovered that the prevalence of depression has more than tripled since the start of the pandemic. See which populations are most likely to be experiencing pandemic-related depression symptoms.

In order to prevent COVID-19 from replicating inside lung cells, NEIDL researchers Anna Honko and Anthony Griffiths created breakthrough nanotechnology to fight the virus. The technology consists of very small, nanosized drops of polymers — essentially, soft bio-friendly plastics — covered in fragments of living lung cell and immune cell membranes. The researchers observed that these polymer droplets laden with pieces of lung cell membrane did a better job of attracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus than living lung cells. Learn how this new technology acts as a decoy to mop up the coronavirus like a sponge.

At the start of the pandemic, NEIDL scientists a found a way to light up the COVID-19 virus using glowing antibodies. This milestone enabled them to study which drugs were most effective at halting or reducing infection. Learn more about how Boston University’s NEIDL dropped everything to help combat COVID-19.

In March, microbiologist Robert Davey suited up to lead the first team of scientists in Boston to conduct research on live samples of the coronavirus. Their main goal was to identify effective treatments and vaccine candidates.

Check out all of Boston University’s COVID-19 research updates here.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories at @neidl, Center for Regenerative Medicine at @CReM_Boston, College of Engineering at @BUCollegeofENG, School of Public Health at @BUSPH, and Boston University’s School of Medicine at @BUMedicine.

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