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ALS Alert Newsletter

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Apr 14

Moving ALS Research Forward During the COVID-19 Pandemic

How the Packard Center and other labs are functioning during these unprecedented times.

Scientific research is a methodical, hands-on process. Now that many universities and institutions have non-essential employees away from their labs and working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, how are Packard scientists coping?

“While we have had to dramatically reduce the amount of people and work being done in the lab, our work still continues,” noted Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, founder and director of the Robert Packard Center and a researcher-clinician at Johns Hopkins University. “For the safety of our researchers and lab, only one staff member and one post-doctoral fellow are able to physically work in the lab at any given time while practicing safe distancing.” Rothstein’s most essential experiments are currently ongoing, albeit it on a smaller scale. The experiments being maintained are the most critical, as they explore a new mechanism that may underlie sporadic ALS- as well as working with a pharmaceutical company to target this new ALS pathway. The remainder of this team is utilizing their time away from the lab for other types of important work, including analyzing existing data, reviewing papers, and generating hypotheses for future research. He stays in regular weekly contact with all of his laboratory staff through Zoom from home.

Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein is now holding his weekly lab meeting via Zoom.

With no new data being generated at this time, most ALS and other medical researchers around the country are conducting in silico experiments (that is, research done on a computer rather than with cells or animal models, which can be done outside a lab). Divya Ramamoorthy, a PhD candidate, graduate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works on the Answer ALS project, has been spending her time writing code, analyzing data, and reading papers. She has spent much of her time on a data analysis project related to ALS disease progression modeling. “I am appreciative that my research is entirely computational and can easily be continued remotely with minimal disruption,” Ramamoorthy said. “We have also continued virtual meetings utilizing Zoom with collaborators, including our Answer ALS peers, IBM Watson, and ALS clinicians.”

At Thomas Jefferson University, Packard investigator Piera Pasinelli has also had her research halted. Pasinelli is allowed to have one person in her lab for a two-hour shift and everyone must practice social distancing. The personnel and shifts change from week-to-week. The remainder of her team is working from home, utilizing technology to stay in touch and work remotely. “Our research has been dramatically affected,” noted Pasinelli. “But I think this crisis shows the importance of scientific research.”

For Pasinelli, one of the positive outcomes has been seeing her staff rise to the occasion. “I’ve been impressed with the resiliency of my lab during this trying time. Some of my youngest lab members and students have been rallying and coming up with very creative ways to help. It shows you that everyone is really essential.”

In addition to work stoppage, many laboratories have had their supplies diverted assist with clinical care. Rothstein noted that Johns Hopkins, including his own lab, have diverted supplies including gloves, masks and gowns from all the research facilities for use at the medical sites. “This is unprecedented,” he noted. But Rothstein does see a silver lining, at least on the clinical care side.

“While my laboratory staff has been depleted, our clinic staff has been working at full-strength,” stated Rothstein. Utilizing telemedicine to maintain patient contact and care has become a pivotal part of his day. “Not only are our clinicians adapting to this new way of treating ALS, but our patients are adapting too and that gives me hope.” Adapting to telemedicine for ALS patients makes sense now so to keep those with compromised medical immunities and breathing quarantined, Rothstein explains, but it will also be immensely helpful in the future when patients are further along in their disease and are unable to physically travel to the Hopkins ALS clinic. “It optimizes a new method of treatment for those in the advance stages of their disease. It’s been a challenge, but our patients are adapting, utilizing whatever technology and family is available to assist with the tele visits.”

With the end date of the COVID-19 pandemic nowhere in sight, it seems Packard scientists will continue to tap the same creativity they’re using to understand ALS to keep the research engine going strong.

For more information on COVID-19, please visit the Johns Hopkins, please visit the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center