In the Fight Against COVID-19, These Female Scientists Are Breaking Ground

Female Leadership

The outbreak of COVID-19 has meant all hands on deck as pharmaceutical researchers and companies aim their resources at combatting the devastating virus that has infected nearly 6 million people across the globe, including 1.7 million people in the United States.

While there are so many scientists working on the disease, the San Francisco Business Times recently highlighted four women who are making strides in addressing the novel coronavirus in its “Influential Women of 2020” series.

CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna turned her laboratory at U.C. Berkeley into a COVID-19 diagnostics facility during the early days of the pandemic. Doudna and a team of volunteers repurposed her lab to rapidly conduct diagnostics tests. They are using CRISPR proteins to detect tiny amounts of coronavirus genome that could trigger measurable signals, the Business Times reported. The lab is using robotic equipment to scale up the number of tests that can be analyzed per day. By the end of this month, Doudna anticipates her lab can test up to 1,000 tests per day.

“The sensitivity of these proteins makes them a promising tool for developing rapid, inexpensive tests for the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Doudna told the Business Times. “The implementation of these tools in lab settings is imminent, but we aim to make CRISPR-based diagnostics even more broadly accessible in the not-so-distant future.”

Carolyn Calfee, a professor of medicine at U.C. San Francisco and respiratory disease expert, was well-suited to combat COVID-19. Calfee has been studying acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a severe complication associated with COVID-19. ARDS has been a condition associated with a high percentage of fatalities associated with COVID-19. In March, Calfee’s team pivoted their research to COVID-19, particularly focusing on ARDS differences caused by COVID-19 versus other causes, and why some survive and others die from the condition, the Business Times said.

Annie Luetkemeyer, a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital and infectious disease specialist, has been focusing her efforts on trying to understand why COVID1-9 has disproportionately impacted minority populations. In her practice at the hospital, about 80% of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 were Latino.

“It just became very clear that we’re going to be dealing with a markedly racially and ethnically disparity-producing disease, which we’re seeing all across the country, but particularly here,” Luetkemeyer told the Business Times.

In addition to understanding why COVID-19 is hitting minority populations harder, Luetkemeyer is also leading the hospital’s clinical work with Gilead Science’s remdesivir, the only drug that has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. While the drug provides some hope, Luetkemeyer believes combination therapies will likely be the key to fighting COVID-19.

Melanie Ott, a leading virologist at the Gladstone Institutes, has been studying infectious disease for more than three decades. She was recently tapped to helm a new Gladstone research unit aimed at COVID-19 and developing new therapies against future infectious diseases, the Business Times said. Her work has been hindered by a lack of available lab space. The Business Times said she was attempting to bring a Gladstone lab back online after it had been shuttered. The lab was previously used to study tuberculosis. The research conducted by her team can help solve the current crisis, as well as future ones that are lurking out there.

“What we learn now can be geared towards the next pandemic, whether that’s going to be coronavirus or not,” Ott told the Business Times.

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