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Rebooting Research, Phase One

May 22, 2020   |   by Hannah Silverstein   |   Dartmouth News

Provost Joseph Helble and guests discuss how labs will start to reopen May 26.

Watch the May 20 Community Conversation broadcast with Provost Joseph Helble and guests Dean Madden, vice provost for research; Margie Ackerman, professor of engineering; and David Leib, professor of microbiology and immunology.

Research—namely phase one of how Dartmouth intends to safely and incrementally ramp up access to campus laboratories—was the topic of the May 20 Community Conversations broadcast with Provost Joseph Helble and guests Dean Madden, vice provost for research; Margie Ackerman, professor of engineering at Thayer School of Engineering; and David Leib, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Geisel School of Medicine. ...

... "By starting slowly and starting small with a very limited on-campus operation, we can examine, evaluate, and learn as we move forward," Helble said. "All of this will help us to plan for the in-person teaching, in-person learning, and in-person living that we hope to do with the maximum number of students that we can safely accommodate by this fall."

Zoom shot of Community Convo
Clockwise, from top left: Provost Joseph Helble, Vice Provost for Research Dean Madden, Professor of Engineering Margie Ackerman, and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology David Leib.

Helble was joined via Zoom by Madden, Ackerman, and Leib who spoke from their homes. The four fielded viewers' questions, relayed by Vice President for Communications Justin Anderson, who moderated the session from a room adjacent to the Starr Studio. The session was the fourth Community Conversations broadcast of the weekly online forum for members of the Dartmouth community to ask questions and learn from campus leaders about the institution's priorities, decisions, and operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. ...

Ackerman's immunoengineering lab is one of the few labs to continue some research this spring, applying "the practical approaches near and dear to the hearts of engineers" to the study of the immune system, including antibodies produced by recovered COVID-19 patients—a collaboration with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Geisel, and the Upper Valley-based biotech company Adimab.

Ackerman's research group is currently screening antibodies to locate the best candidates for a possible vaccine.

"This is a little bit like what Netflix does when it makes a suggestion about a program that you would like to watch or Amazon suggests a purchase for you," Ackerman said. "Understanding what the characteristics of the most effective antibodies are will give us a target profile for evaluating vaccine candidates."

This project began in March when "three enterprising PhD students staked out my office to tell me the plan of how we could adapt our approaches to understanding immunity to contribute to coronavirus and pursue vaccine and antibody interventions," she said. "I'm proud of their initiative. When the world was getting disrupted, they were thinking about what they could do to contribute and to combat that disruption."

On the diagnostic side of the coronavirus problem, Leib's lab is working on a faster, more reliable test for COVID-19.

"This test provides many advantages," he said. "It's very quick. It's very sensitive. It has a very low false positive and false negative rate, and it's really quite uniquely simple, so that it can be used in low-resource settings throughout the world."

"How fast is 'quick'?" Helble asked.

"The test that we have been working on has a turnaround time of about 40 minutes," Leib said.

Asked how long it will take for a COVID-19 vaccine to be readily available, Ackerman and Leib said it would take a year or more.

"We can't make it rosier than that," Ackerman said.

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