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The Front-line Researchers: The Next Generation of Scientists Steps Up to Fight the Pandemic

University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine scientists and clinicians have begun an unprecedented number of studies and clinical trials investigating a single virus, SARS-CoV-2, and COVID-19, the disease it causes. Moving from research on Zika virus, influenza, cancer, and more, in the space of two months these experts have turned their expertise and experience toward fighting the pandemic.

But it’s not just the seasoned, established investigators who’ve put their own research on pause to work on a singular new cause. Another generation of researchers has been working on the scientific front line, often putting in 12 hour days, seven days a week, at the bench and at the bedside. Penn Medicine graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and laboratory technicians have also dedicated their energy and efforts to fight this virus.

“My students, postdocs, and technicians are working around the clock and I am so proud of them,” said Scott Hensley, PhD, a professor of Microbiology leading a team to investigate SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. “I am lucky to have such a great group of trainees and technicians. Not only are they scientific rockstars, but they are really nice people who are fun to work with. They have been running SARS-CoV-2 serological assays nonstop for the past month. Every night I wait anxiously by my computer for more data to flow in.”

Yet the hard work of these front-line researchers often goes unseen. The profiles below shine a light on just a few of the scientific trainees advancing discovery about SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19. Follow @PennMedBench on Twitter to get to know more in the weeks ahead through a series on these amazing scientists and scholars.

Jennifer Wu 

Jennifer Wu 

PhD student, Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics

Principal Investigator: E.John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics

The Wherry Lab is investigating the immune response in patients with COVID-19 to understand variation in immunological response to the virus, and guide interventional and preventative clinical strategies including clinical trials and vaccines.

What are you studying? As part of the Wherry lab COVID-19 research response, we're doing deep immune profiling of T and B cell responses of COVID-19 intensive care unit patients, convalescent and recovered donors, as well as health care workers. Before the pandemic, I developed an in vitro (i.e. cells in a dish) model of T-cell exhaustion, which is a form of immune dysfunction that arises after chronic viral infection or cancer. I have been using this model to interrogate pathways that initiate and maintain T-cell exhaustion in hopes of finding novel therapies that could potentially reverse this dysfunction.

What is the impact? We understand very little about the immune response to this pathogen. Answers to basic questions like whether or not we can generate long-lasting immunity are still unknown. Understanding the immune cell responses will inform how to generate protective immunity and the data uncovered from this research will hopefully factor into clinical trials and vaccine design.

Sigrid Gouma, PhD

Sigrid Gouma, PhD

Post-Doctoral Researcher, Microbiology 

Principal Investigator: Scott Hensley, PhD, a professor of Microbiology

The Hensley Lab is investigating antibody response and immunity in recovered patients, convalescent plasma donors, and health care workers.

What are you studying? We have developed a serology test to detect SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies in blood samples. A serology test looks for the presence of antibodies, which are specific proteins made in response to infections. With this test, we are measuring COVID-19 antibody levels in front-line health care workers for potential immunity to the virus. We are also performing multiple studies to track who in certain broader populations has COVID-19 antibodies in their blood, which will help us to determine how much the virus has spread. 

Prior to the pandemic, I studied antibody responses to seasonal H3N2 influenza viruses.

What is the impact? Because not everyone who feels sick gets tested for COVID-19, it is difficult to determine where and how much the virus has spread. With our serological assay, we can determine how many people have been infected. These estimates are important to better understand the characteristics of the virus and eventually to limit viral spread.

Leticia Kuri-Cervantes, PhD

Leticia Kuri-Cervantes, PhD

Senior Research Associate, Microbiology

Principal Investigator: Michael Betts, PhD, a professor of Microbiology

The Betts Lab is investigating the immune response in patients with COVID-19 to understand variation in immunological response to the virus, and guide interventional and preventative clinical strategies including clinical trials and vaccines.

What are you studying? We are doing a comprehensive profiling of the immune system of patients in different stages of COVID-19 (mild, severe, recovered) to understand whether immune system malfunction, either an overactive response or an underactive one, are a consequence of the disease, or whether these observations are part of the immune response against the virus. 

What is the impact? We are unveiling changes in a lot of different immune cell subsets, and linking it to disease outcome and clinical parameters (like the things doctors test for when they draw your blood). Our data sets the stage for more in-detail targeted studies. We are showing a map, or big picture, of what's happening, and then we – the scientific community – can address specific questions. We are also discussing our findings in real time with physicians treating COVID-19 patients at Penn and using those findings to consider different target/treatment approaches.

There are graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research technicians across Penn Medicine working tirelessly on coronavirus-related projects. Don’t forget to follow @PennMedBench on Twitter to get to know more in the weeks ahead and stay tuned to the Penn Medicine News blog for more profiles in this series. Want to be profiled? Fill out this form and email photos of yourself at work (whatever that looks like for you these days!) to

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