What’s going on?

It’s been hard to find time to update the lab website, so apologies if some of the content is out of date. It has been a challenging, yet sometimes exhilarating, time to be researching viruses in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been studying viral evolution in samples from Wisconsin. We’ve used this information to learn how the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 in Milwaukee and Madison differed; how SARS-CoV-2 spread within college athletes despite daily testing; how transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in hospitals between healthcare providers and patients is rare; and how UW-Madison’s explosive outbreak in two campus dorms did not seem to result in viral transmission to the broader Madison community. We have just been awarded a new CDC contract to continue studying SARS-CoV-2 evolution among those whose immune responses aren’t fully able to control the virus. Additional new positions working closely with my lab and Tom Friedrich’s group will be announced shortly.

We also invested a lot of energy in improving SARS-CoV-2 testing in K-12 schools. The mobile point-of-care testing that we started last summer was implemented in two local schools for the 2020-21 school year. The availability of BinaxNOW antigen tests that are simple, inexpensive, and fast has us pivot our efforts starting last fall. We worked with Public Health Madison Dane County to train more than 100 Dane County K-12 schools to run these tests on symptomatic members of their school communities. We continue working with public health and school districts to prepare for a safe reopening of schools in 2021.

We also apply research tools that we’ve used against other viruses to better understand COVID-19 disease and immunity. Hailey is developing assays to study T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 in collaboration with UW-Madison dermatologists, while Anna applied ultra dense peptide arrays initially used to look for antibody responses to other viruses to help define the landscape of antibodies binding to SARS-CoV-2. In a departure from our focus on monkey animal models for viral disease, we also helped generate a high quality Syrian hamster genome, as they are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and develop disease.

The SARS-CoV-2 projects are overlaid on other research priorities in the lab. We recently received a renewal of an NIH contract to better understand immunogenetics of monkeys to improve transplant research, continuing a project that we’ve been leading for more than a decade. We also continue to run a fee-for-service genotyping unit that makes genotyping of these difficult loci available to the broader scientific community through the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. We are also broadening our work with the transplant community to include more intensive surveillance of monkeys that are receiving organ transplants for viral infection and re-emergence. We are also expanding our genomics research. Trent recently designed a 3-D printed robot that makes sequencing ultra long DNA fragments easier, and we are in the midst of generating data to dramatically increase our understanding of the genomes of Mauritian cynomolgus macaques, a population of monkeys I’ve been studying since starting the lab in 2005.

At the same time, our studies into Zika virus are yielding new insights into the “last pandemic” before COVID-19. We still don’t know why birth defects appeared in the 2016 outbreak in the Americas, but not in past outbreaks in Africa. And we don’t have great models for testing vaccines and other medical countermeasures, which are impossible to test in advance of Zika virus’s re-emergence in people in the future. We have projects aiming to achieve a consistent Zika virus phenotype in pregnant monkeys that are going well, and Christina recently described a study better understanding sexual transmission of Zika virus.

I’m also happy to report that Gage and Anna are slated to defend their PhDs next week and will be starting a postdoc and returning to medical school, respectively, in the coming months. I may consider adding a highly motivated and passionate PhD student to the lab this fall. If you are matriculating and might be interested in a rotation, please reach out to me directly. As I note elsewhere on the site, I have exceedingly high expectations for PhD students and those who will thrive in my lab will be independent, creative, and exceptionally hard working.