Finding COVID-19-fighting medicine will require collaboration, collectivism and proper trials, chemistry lecturer says

Unlike the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which most chemists find annoying or frustrating, the COVID-19 pandemic uncertainty is very scary. The scientific community understands how virulent our foe is; yet, the indistinct facet is that we cannot pinpoint the virus’s exact location, or spreading velocity, with certainty at all times. Like electrons in atoms, viruses are extremely small compared with the hosts they invade. Individuals not on the front lines of this fight may be inconvenienced by current recommended restrictions, but recognize that essential personnel are working exhaustively to combat this contagion.

With persistent concerted effort, the researchers will continue to battle this adversary the best way they know how: through teamwork, open exchange of ideas, repeated accurate and precise experimentation, gathering copious amounts of data and formation of solid conclusions based on scientific facts.

Following scientific protocols means that a vaccine or effective therapy will take time to bring safely to market.

One of the key concepts I frequently attempt to impart to students is that science cannot be performed in a vacuum; to be successful it takes a team of us utilizing the scientific method described above working together toward a common goal. This is seen even more now on an international scale, as collaborative efforts across disciplines will be instrumental in the rapid response to this viral contagion.

No members of the Norwich Chemistry and Biochemistry Department faculty are on the front lines of this fight, although we have members who measure amounts of toxic substances in the environment, study the mechanisms by which harmful chemicals affect humans, find novel ways to prevent cell damage and develop new synthetic methods for creating targeted therapeutic compounds used in medicine. We each have our own unique research interests, yet this also makes us a dynamic team.

Dr. Page C. Spiess

I have experienced this team collaboration outside of the classroom and laboratory in the past few weeks as my department colleagues banded together with numerous virtual meetings, continuous exchanges of ideas and the knack of using each individual’s skills for the advancement of all of our chemistry and biochemistry courses. And the professors are not alone; deans and even our university president have joined colleagues from across the country in virtual meetings to explore how each level of an academic institution can collaborate to overcome the hurdles we are now facing.

Although we are all doing our best in overcoming challenges to the required rapid transition to online teaching, it is unfortunate that the classes we are offering our students may not meet the exacting standards many of us are used to presenting. This is the same conundrum facing the scientific community and its development of innovative antiviral therapies for the current pandemic. Will scientific corners be cut to get an efficacious pharmaceutical agent to patients? Or, from a teaching perspective, will academic corners be cut to fit the current challenges? I certainly hope not. Following scientific protocols means that a vaccine or effective therapy will take time to bring safely to market. Likewise, following academic regimens to fully train students takes time. Yet, when you are in the middle of a crisis like this, it feels as if time is one of many things you are running out of.

Shortened timeline

When I entered my Ph.D. program back in the early 2000s, I was taught that it takes about 10 years to get a pharmaceutical compound from conception to marketing a safe therapy for patients. Since then, this development time has been drastically decreased with the advent of high throughput technologies and the use of computational structural modeling on the front end. Nevertheless, any new medication necessitates the chemical engineer work with the biochemist and specialist in organic synthesis to present a compound to the pharmacologist/toxicologist for safety testing in the lab.

Next, the compound has to go through multiple levels of human trials, which involve not only thousands of patients, but also detailed screening and documentation of patient signs, symptoms and outcomes by nurses and doctors. Finally, significant data analysis must be performed that demonstrates the compound works as intended without causing detrimental side effects. I can guarantee that a substantial number of people will have contributed to any COVID-19 treatment eventually approved. This requires time. Time it feels as if we do not have.

Not only will novel drug compounds be discovered over the next months, innovative methods of teaching will also be created because of this viral outbreak. With the time left in this semester, I know a priority at Norwich University is to ensure we provide our graduating seniors with the essential skills they need in chemistry and biochemistry to be creative and fruitful members of their employers’ workforces. If there are gaps in learning outcomes for our nongraduating students, discussions of how we can patch those holes moving forward with a strong polymer of cross-linked chemistry curricula have already begun.

Although we are separated from our students and colleagues by space and time, like chemical reactions, we will come out of this reconfigured, creating new and stronger bonds.

Dr. Page C. Spiess is a lecturer in Norwich University’s Chemistry Department. Her research focuses on the use of redox proteomics to detect post-translational modifications and enzyme activity disruption in the study of lung diseases and cancer initiation.

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