Drs. Proal and Putrino brainstorm new research and clinical trial ideas for CoRE

Medford MA, April 29 2024 – Over the past month PolyBio core members Dr. Amy Proal and Dr. Mike VanElzakker traveled to meet collaborators working on long COVID and related complex chronic illness projects and clinical trials. The trip fostered extended collaboration between PolyBio and scientists across the USA.

To begin their trip, Drs. Proal and VanElzakker took the train to New York City to visit Dr. David Putrino at team at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Dr. Proal recently accepted the position of Scientific Director at the Cohen Center for Recovery from Complex Chronic Illness (CoRE): a new clinic at Sinai working to innovate care for patients with long COVID and related complex chronic conditions. Dr. Putrino is CoRE’s Nash Family Director and works closely with Dr. Proal to conceptualize research projects and clinical trials aimed at uncovering or targeting root cause drivers of complex chronic disease including persistent infection, viral reactivation, and microbiome imbalances. During her New York City visit to Sinai, Dr. Proal met the entire CoRE team which includes a dynamic group of MDs, nurses, research coordinators, and project managers.

Dr. Mike VanElzakker presents long COVID neuroinflammation imaging data

In addition, Raven Baxter recently joined the CoRE team as Director of Science Communication. Raven is a molecular biologist and science educator who is building materials for CoRE’s free medical education program. Raven spent a day at CoRE working directly with Drs. Putrino and Proal, where the three scientists brainstormed content for the new education program’s course materials, including the creation of accessible graphics/diagrams and a video platform to enable one on one-interviews with top experts in the field.

After their visit to Mount Sinai, Drs. Proal and VanElzakker flew to San Francisco to attend and speak at the first-ever Infectious Disease Molecular Imaging Symposium at University of California San Francisco. The Symposium, organized and directed by Drs. Timothy Henrich and Henry VanBrocklin, brought together experts in molecular imaging technologies, therapeutic development and management of infectious disease. Dr. Henrich presented data showing that their team has successfully used a virus-specific advanced imaging method to identify deep-tissue viral reservoirs in individuals with HIV.

Dr. Henry VanBrocklin talks about long COVID molecular T cell imaging

Thanks to PolyBio support, the team is now using a similar approach to image deep-tissue SARS-CoV-2 reservoirs in patients with long COVID. They are also using a radioligand capable of identifying activated T cells throughout the brain and body in a related long COVID imaging study. Dr. VanBrocklin presented data from that study showing T cell activation in body sites such as the spinal cord and bone marrow in certain long COVID study participants. Both the deep tissue reservoir and T cell activation long COVID imaging studies are conducted in EXPLORER PET scanner – an advanced imaging machine created by members of the project team. The EXPLORER is 40-fold more sensitive than current commercial PET scanners, allowing for extremely detailed imaging resolution. Drs. Proal and VanElzakker were given a tour of the EXPLORER imaging facilities. This included visiting the cyclotron in the basement of the imaging center where the radioligands used in each imaging project are made on a daily basis by scientists with chemical expertise.

Drs. Peluso, Proal and VanElzakker in front of one of UCSF’s historical HIV treatment facilities

Drs. Proal and VanElzakker were also given an extensive tour of the facilities where the PolyBio-supported LongCOVID LIINC study and tissue program are underway. Dr. Michael Peluso is an infectious disease MD who has been leading the LIINC study since 2020. Dr. Peluso showed Drs. Proal and VanElzakker the medical exam rooms where biopsy procedures to collect tissue – including from the gut and lymph nodes – are carefully obtained from long COVID study participants via an expert team of MDs and nurses. One of the medical buildings in which biopsies are performed is the same room in which some of the earliest HIV patients were treated by UCSF doctors. The room is numbered “5B” and has even been featured in a documentary about its important role in early AIDS care and treatment trials.

Historic room 5B is now the site of long COVID research

Next, Drs. Proal and VanElzakker took the train to San Diego, where they received a full tour of the J. Craig Venter Institute’s sequencing core and other facilities. This included watching samples being processed via the Quanterix/Simoa platform central to a large PolyBio-supported JCVI study working to identify Long COVID antiviral immune responses in concert with metrics of SARS-CoV-2 persistence. JCVI’s Dr. Chris Dupont showed Drs. Proal and VanElzakker the Singulator – a machine used by the team analyze data obtained from long COVID tissue samples, including those from the lung and the peripheral nervous system. The Singulator allows for gene expression patterns of each individual cells in every tissue sample to be documented, creating a detailed map of immune and infectious-related patterns that may contribute to chronic disease.