More than 150 projects responded to COVID-19 Pilot Grant Program

Graphic on CTSI funding


What started out as a plan for Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute to give out four $50,000 grants to research projects related to COVID-19 has quickly morphed into $900,000 awarded to 17 studies through a process that took just four weeks.

Steven ReisCTSI announced the $200,000 COVID-19 Pilot Grant Program on March 27, and that same day, the DSF Charitable Foundation contacted CTSI Director Steven Reis and “they said, ‘Hey, we saw this, we want to see how we can help.”

DSF, the charitable-giving organization of the David Scaife family, ended up providing an additional $350,000 to fund more studies. Then the Office of the Provost and Pitt Research kicked in $150,000 each, and CTSI added $50,000 to bring the total to $900,000.

The response was just as strong on the proposal side. By the April 3 deadline, 157 letters of intent had been submitted from 590 investigators covering 14 schools and 91 departments at the University.

Reis, who also is associate vice chancellor for Clinical Research, Health Sciences, and a professor of medicine, said the response was overwhelming. “I’m surprised by the number; I was surprised by the speed of 157 turning in a week; and I was surprised by the quality of the work. Considering this is new for most everyone, they’re applying their knowledge and their experience to a new challenge, I was just very impressed.”

Cliff Callaway, executive vice chair and professor of Emergency Medicine, was tasked with sorting through the letters. “He put together a two-stage review process and found faculty reviewers and staff reviewers to look at this with a very rapid turnaround. … We looked at innovation; we looked at the problem that they were trying to solve; we looked at feasibility,” Reis said.

Thirty projects were selected to present short proposals. The review teams then had 48 hours to pick the 17 projects that received funding. All of the awards are for $50,000, except one study that actually combined two projects.

The “SARS-CoV-2 clinical and community serosurveillance” study received $100,000 for its three co-primary investigators — Paul Duprex and Anita McElroy, of the Center for Vaccine Research, and Alan Wells, a professor of pathology and bioengineering. Duprex and Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research have become well known for being one of the few sites to receive samples of the virus and to be working on a vaccine. This study is separate from that and will look at new ways to detect antibodies to COVID-19, “to detect whether someone’s immune or not,” Reis said.

The proposals broke down roughly into six different areas — basic science, diagnostic, outcomes, therapeutics, modeling and pediatrics. One that Reis found particularly interesting was a proposal for a nasal spray as an alternative dosage form for a drug which is currently in clinical testing for another indication.

CTSI will continue to work with the projects to support them through regulatory issues and more. Reis said they’ve already had implementation meetings with 15 of the 17 projects. “Whatever they need, if we have that support, we will help, and if not, we’ll try to find someone on campus with the expertise.”

In addition, CTSI has been tasked by Pitt and UPMC to coordinate resources, expertise, research tools and lab capabilities for all projects related to COVID-19. Reis said they’ve received 400 studies so far. CTSI is providing support in any way it can. They’ve set up a committee that’s coordinating bio sample collection, which are then connected to the projects, and they’ve been doing a lot of work with regulatory support.

Reis said Louis Falo, co-senior author of a potential vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 and chair of dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine and UPMC, contacted him “because he was having some challenges getting through the FDA so we were able to link him to someone at the FDA who’s fast tracking his IND (Investigational New Drug) application for his vaccine. We’re a good connector and we have resources to help people.”

The other projects, which each received $50,000, and their principal investigators:

Biomarkers for Predicting Viral Pneumonia Severity: John Alcorn, associate professor of Pediatrics

Cellular Mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 Infection, Sally Wenzel, professor of Medicine, and Xiuxia Zhou, Xiuxia Zhou, research assistant professor, Environmental and Occupational Health

Coronavirus and Lung Microbiome Interactions: Georgios Kitsios, assistant professor of Medicine

COVID-19 Neurologic Manifestations: Sherry Hsiang-Yi Chou, associate professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery

COVID-Insight Triage and Monitoring Tool: David Salcido, research assistant professor of Emergency Medicine

Determinants of COVID-19 clinical outcomes: Christian Fernandez, assistant professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences; Ernesto Marques, associate professor, Infectious Diseases and Microbiology; Donald Burke, dean emeritus of Public Health, and Philip Empey, associate professor, Pharmacy and Therapeutics

Generation of transgenic hACE2 knock-in mice: Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of Surgery; Lou Falo, professor and chairman of Dermatology; Mark Shlomchik, professor and chair of Chair, Immunology; and William Klimstra, associate professor of Immunology

Impact of Maternal COVID-19 Infection on Newborns: Anne-Marie Rick, pediatrics fellow at UPMC Children’s Hospital, and Judith Martin, associate professor of Pediatrics

Lung-Targeting SARS-CoV-2 Therapeutic: Raymond Frizzell, professor and director of Cystic Fibrosis Research Center

Modeling Strategies for the COVID-19 Pandemic: Mark Roberts, professor and chair of Health Policy and Management

Pediatric Epidemiology SARS-CoV-2 antibody response: Sarah Wheeler, assistant professor of Pathology; Glenn Rapsinski, Infectious Diseases fellow at UPMC Children’s Hospital; and Megan Culler Freeman, Infectious Disease fellow at UPMC Children’s Hospital

SARS-CoV-2 Cellular Imaging System: Zandrea Ambrose, associate professor, Microbiology & Molecular Genetics

SARS-CoV-2 Immune Escape Variants in Treatment: Jana Jacobs, senior laboratory analyst, Microbiology & Molecular Genetics

SARS-CoV-2 Prevention Spray: Lisa Rohan, professor, Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Sravan Kumar Patel, assistant professor, Pharmaceutical Sciences

Therapeutic nanobodies for SARS-CoV-2: Yi Shi, assistant professor of Cell Biology

Therapy for COVID-19 Induced ARDS: Luis Ortiz, professor, Environmental and Occupational Health

Visit the COVID-19 Pilot Grant Page for additional information.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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