As the COVID-19 pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to threaten the health and wellbeing of millions around the world, research and innovation offer a crucial line of defence against the virus.
Researchers at IISER Pune are applying their expertise to learn how the virus proliferates, find ways to arrest its growth, and develop tests to diagnose. They are developing a low-cost ventilator to assist with breathing and trying to model the spread of infectious disease. We hope these studies will give us better ways to prevent, diagnose, and manage COVID-19.
Alongside research, some of our institute members are also involved in reaching out to the community within and outside the campus and to engage with the public in a meaningful manner in these times.
Research at IISER Pune on COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2
Following safety and physical distancing measures, research efforts are underway in some of these projects even as the lockdown is on, and some of the projects are in the planning phase where work may be initiated after the lockdown or based on availability of resources required.
Ventilators and PPE
- Design and fabrication of low-cost ventilators (Dr. Umakant Rapol, Dr. Sunil Nair and team)
- Making superhydrophobic and germicidal nano-coating for personal protection equipment (PPE) (Dr. Atikur Rahman)
- Generating oxygen through chemical means (Prof. Srinivas Hotha, Dr. Umakant Rapol, Dr. Sunil Nair in association with IIT Delhi)
- To assess if early detection of olfactory dysfunctions (loss of the sense of smell) can be used as a screening method for COVID-19 patients (Dr. Nixon Abraham and team, with collaborators from BJ Government Medical College and Sassoon General Hospitals, Pune): At the beginning of this work in April 2020, the team had circulated a questionnaire with a test for sense of smell that anyone can do using simple substances from around them. Following this, the team went on to develop a non-invasive method to study loss of smell in COVID-19 patients. Their observations are reported in this paper in the journal e-Clinical Medicine and described in this news article.
- To make an ultra-sensitive nano-biosensor platform for field effect transistor based point-of-care detection (Dr. Atikur Rahman)
- To develop a carbon nanotube (CNT)-based surveillance diagnostic tool for detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus (Dr. Ashna Bajpai, Dr. Sunil Nair, with collaborators from Stellargene)
- Synthesis of oligonucleotide probes for COVID-19 detection (Prof. S.G. Srivatsan and team; Center for Excellence in Indigenisation of Diagnostics (InDx) project funded by C-CAMP, Bengaluru)
- Under the Shastri COVID-19 Pandemic Response Grant (SCPRG), Dr. Chaitanya Athale's group in collaboration with Dr. Keith Pardee from University of Toronto, Canada, will be working on developing a rapid and low-cost diagnostic test for COVID-19 using synthetic biology. Recently the IISER Pune team has obtained results that demonstrate their ability to RNA encoding viral sequences in laboratory settings. They are currently in the process of testing specificity and sensitivity. Additionally the lab has preliminary results for in-house substitution of cell free extracts (CFE) that form the basis of this kind of paper-based diagnostics.
Vaccines and Drug Candidates
- To identify potential lead candidates against SARS-CoV-2 (Dr. Britto Sandanaraj and team)
- To find new and repurpose existing drugs to inhibit spike protein/ACE2 interaction (Dr. Arnab Mukherjee and team, with collaborators from IGIB, New Delhi): Some of this work has been published in the journal Chemistry-An Asian Journal here.
- Targeting SARS-CoV-2 Nsp13 helicase for structure-based inhibitor design (Dr. Saikrishnan Kayarat, Dr. M.S. Madhusudhan and team with collaborators from NCL, Pune and IISER Thiruvananthapuram)
- To explore the use of amphiphilic heparan sulfate mimetics as antivirals for COVID-19 (Dr. Raghavendra Kikkeri, with collaborators from the University of Queensland): See a publication on this work from May 2021 here (iScience 24 (5):102479
Understanding the Spread of the Pandemic
- To assess the spread of COVID-19 in Pune city, through epidemiological and serological survey (Dr. Aurnab Ghose and team, with SP Pune Univ., THSTI, Faridabad, CMC, Vellore and Pune Municipal Corporation, with support from Persistent Systems). To assess the spread of COVID-19 in Pune city, through epidemiological and serological survey along with the evaluation of immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection (Dr. Aurnab Ghose and team, with SP Pune University; THSTI, Faridabad; CMC, Vellore; and Pune Municipal Corporation, with support from Persistent Foundation). See the preliminary findings here.
- To produce an infectious diseases hazard map for India with predictive capabilities: This map has now been produced based on transportation networks and mobility patterns with predictive capabilities. This map gives hazard values for about 450 cities and towns in India with a population of more than 1 lakh. An online resource for this hazard map has been made available in June 2021 and the work has been submitted to archives here (Prof. M.S. Santhanam, Dr. G.J. Sreejith, Dr. Sachin Jain)
- Imaging the SARS-CoV-2 virus using Atomic Force Microscope to understand its morphology (Dr. Shivprasad Patil, with collaborators from NIV, Pune)
- Generating knockout mice for ACE2 receptor as a model for studying COVID-19 pathogenesis: The team has generated the ACE knockout models and established the line for ACE2 knockout. Currently animals are in active breeding and available for the use of researchers across the country. (Prof. Sanjeev Galande and team)
To study metabolic pathways being dysregulated upon SARS-CoV-2 infection (Dr. Jeetender Chugh, with collaborators from SPPU, Pune) (in planning phase, work is yet to begin)
To assess the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants and their contribution to viral transmission, virulence, clinical outcomes, re-infections and breakthrough infections (Dr. Krishanpal Karmodiya, Dr. Aurnab Ghose, and Dr. Joy Monteiro from IISER Pune; Prof. Sanjeev Galande (Shiv Nadar University and IISER Pune); Prof. L.S. Shashidhara (Ashoka University and IISER Pune) along with National Chemical Laboratory Pune and Pune Knowledge Cluster). This work receives funding support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Villoo Poonawalla Foundation (VPF) and the Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha (JBGVS)).
COVID-19 Data Curation and Analysis for Pune City
- The testing, patient and contact tracing data collected by the Pune Municipal Corporation is being curated and analysed to provide decision support to the administration in the matters of geographical spread and differences in the public health response of different wards in PMC. This information is also being used in forecasting sub-city level requirements of critical care infrastructure and deaths. (Dr. Joy Merwin Monteiro and team from IISER Pune, Prof. L.S. Shashidhara (Ashoka University and IISER Pune), Dr. Sarika Bhattacharya and Dr. Anu Raghunathan (CSIR-NCL, Pune), Pune Knowledge Cluster, Dr. Bhalchandra Pujari (SP Pune University, Pune) and Dr. Vidya Mave and team (Johns Hopkins branch in Pune)
Public Engagement and Community Service Efforts by IISER Pune Members
- Even as IISER Pune explores the feasibility of setting up a testing centre to contribute to the available capacity in India for testing for SARS-CoV-2, several members from the institute including students, staff and faculty members have come forward to volunteer for this activity. Several institute members are also contributing in their individual capacity to help debunk myths surrounding the disease and aid the public understanding of the science behind the functioning of the virus and on ways to target the virus, while also urging the public to follow government advisories on physical distancing and lockdown measures.
- Led by Dr. Nagaraj Balasubramanian, members from the MANAV team is creating a tool that can curate COVID-19 related published information from Twitter and rate content and make it easily accessible to a general readership. The team has also created a recurring online quiz on COVID-19 to engage students with verified information on the virus pandemic.
- During the peak months of the lockdown in 2020, led by Dr. Pooja Sancheti, a team of volunteers from the campus was involved in raising funds, and then procuring ration supplies (staples such as flour, rice, lentils, oil, vegetables etc.) and some sanitation supplies (sanitary pads, soap etc.) for the families living in the labourers' camp on campus. They distributed cloth masks, and had a clothes donation drive as well. This activity was carried out for a few months in 2020 until some families restarted work. The team also provided them with medical help as the need arose, and continue to do so (including providing them with deworming tablets in March 2021). Since June 2020 (and continuing to the present), the team has organised (raised funds for and facilitated the process involving IISER Pune's mess vendors) eggs and milk for breakfast for the children of this camp. They also facilitated online tutoring and infrastructure assistance for the children of IISER Pune's housekeeping and domestic staff whose schools and tuitions are currently shut down or are in online mode.
- Dr. Joy Merwin Monteiro and team is developing a rapid COVID-19 related literature explorer, based on contextual similarity of research articles. A website prototype has been deployed here: http://coronastory.in and the team has carried out annotation of COVID-19 research article dataset for NLP research community
- All through this lockdown period, Smt Indrani Balan Science Activity Centre at IISER Pune has continued to produce and post simple science activities for educators and students, adding further to the online educational material. Do check out their latest collection on the Balan Centre's Facebook page.