What do you do when the world shifts in an instant? When something as simple as going to school or work becomes risky? When a fast-moving virus takes so many lives and threatens so many others?

At UofL, the Cardinal family fought back.

As the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably made its way to our corner of the world, we feared and we grieved, but we adapted.

Our health care heroes mobilized, filling the front lines to care for patients. Our researchers went to the labs to study the disease and test treatments. Our students, faculty and staff switched to new ways of learning and living all while supporting their neighbors. Our university united with our city and our commonwealth to increase testing and seek solutions.

The world did change, and so did we. These are some of our stories of resiliency, innovation and care.

Coming together while apart

For Praneeth Goli ’20, the end of his undergraduate career was nothing like he expected. Like all UofL students, his college experience took a turn following spring break when COVID-19 brought the city to a standstill and his final classes moved online. The chemistry major quickly learned to adapt.

“While it was difficult to rearrange myself while having the same anxiety everyone had for this situation and our world, my experience in initiative building helped me in this situation,” he said. “I was able to really push past obstacles and make some impact.”

Not only did Goli finish his undergraduate years, but he and four other community advocates set up a coalition to help an at-risk population during the pandemic. The
Dream Team Senior Citizen Food Service has provided several thousand meals each week since March to senior citizens who are unable to leave their homes because of COVID-19.

“We’ve tried to help the best way we can,” Goli said. 

An avid volunteer, Goli knew that taking care of his community would take more than a government or institutional response. He knew volunteers on the ground were going to make the difference, and he knew UofL would be the place to find them. Goli was joined in his efforts by 40 UofL student volunteers. They also partnered with other local students and nonprofits.

Goli, who will spend the next year as a Harvard Medical School research scholar, sees service as a guiding force in his future. He is grateful his time at UofL immersed him in
a service culture.

“I firmly believe we’re all stronger together when we’re truly together. Some people ask, ‘Why would you spend time trying to solve problems that aren’t your own?’ But these are all of our collective problems,” he said. “If someone across the city is experiencing problems, it’s going to touch you in some way.”

Searching for solutions

Researchers around the world are moving swiftly to find the treatment that will stop COVID-19.

UofL is uniquely equipped and located to join in these efforts. Not only is the university home to top infectious disease researchers, but it is also one of only 14 labs in the country designated by the National Institutes of Health to research infectious agents. Having access to a Biosafety Level 3 lab means UofL researchers can safely work with live pathogens, including coronaviruses.

Their work has led to incredible discoveries, like that of Paula Bates, John Trent, Don Miller and Kenneth Palmer. The scientists developed and tested a synthetic DNA aptamer that could bind to specific targets and might stop novel coronavirus from replicating inside the body. Their work is being fast-tracked through development, including seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin treating COVID-19 patients.

“Like many scientists, as soon as I heard about the new coronavirus, I wanted to help and started to think about how my area of research might intersect with coronavirus research efforts,” said Bates, a professor of medicine. “I am fortunate to be at UofL, which is one of the few places in the country where we have the facilities to do experiments using the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Palmer, the director of the Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, is also investigating a second treatment, this one using tobacco to test therapeutic drugs. Working with partners at the National Cancer Institute and the University of Pittsburgh, Palmer is testing preventive protein compounds that could ultimately become a nasal spray useful in pre-exposure treatment of COVID-19.

Since the compound has shown promise in lab testing, the next step is to grow more of the protein compound, which is found in one of the university’s proprietary tobacco strains, and move it into human testing. Palmer is hopeful there could a drug by the end of the year.

“The unique quality about studying these compounds in Kentucky is that we can rapidly scale up production of tobacco plants to produce the large amounts of the agent we will need for human testing,” Palmer said. “As people already know, tobacco grows very well in Kentucky.”

Manufacturing more than materials

Graduate student Kate Schneidau knew she needed to do something.

“I was taught all my life if somebody needs help, you step up and help as much as you can without expecting anything, because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

For Schneidau and her fellow students and colleagues working at UofL’s Additive Manufacturing Institute of Science and Technology (AMIST), that meant engineering a way to provide personal protective equipment and testing supplies at the height of the pandemic.

Representatives from multiple areas across the university, including the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, the School of Dentistry and the School of Medicine, turned to 3D printing to bolster medical supplies including face shields and swabs for testing kits.

Schneidau was the project manager for the face shields initiative, overseeing the initial scheduling of four other Speed School students to enable production of 55 shields per day. She also coordinated a grassroots community effort to aid in their project. Citizens around Louisville were able to create some components with home printers, and Schneidau organized ways for those pieces to be picked up and put into the production stream.

Her work during the pandemic bolstered her goal of building medical devices as a career.

“I want to make an impact to help people better their lives – to make sure they live their best life possible,” she said.

Meanwhile, students and faculty at the schools of dentistry, medicine and engineering joined forces to put together COVID-19 testing kits, including manufacturing 3D printed swabs.

Gerald “Jerry” T. Grant, interim assistant dean of advanced technologies and innovation at the School of Dentistry and associate director at AMIST, turned a 3D print lab that was usually used to print dental implants, crowns and prosthodontic jaw bones into a lab that could print 385 swabs per hour.

Working with business partners Envisiontech and NewPro3D, Grant’s team used a pliable resin material for the swabs.

“3D printing can provide a unique opportunity to address urgent needs – this is the reason I came to UofL to work with teams of engineers, physicians, dentists, artists and others to address situations much like we have now,” Grant said.

Once the swabs were completed, they were sent into clinical trials. As they waited for results of the trials, bioengineering students Sienna Shacklette and Clara Jones compiled testing kits using a limited number of commercially available swabs for immediate use throughout the state. In one week they assembled more than 700 kits. The 3D swabs swiftly passed clinical trials and were made available in May to UofL Health and Kentucky-based companies.

Protecting the heroes

On the front lines of COVID-19, UofL’s health care heroes fought to keep patients alive while risking themselves in the process.

To help keep these fighters safe, UofL’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute partnered with the state, the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council and three large Kentucky hospital systems on a groundbreaking initiative to test health care workers for COVID-19 and its antibodies.

Not only does the project test health care workers for the disease, but it determines how much immunity was generated by their exposure and provides plasma for treating sick patients.

The Co-Immunity Project provides a real-time picture of COVID-19 infections, identifying where the virus is, how strong it is and how it’s moving geographically. That information, available to scientists and researchers across the globe, could help prepare for a second wave of the virus.

The Co-Immunity Project is just one of the ways UofL provided increased testing capabilities to the city and the state during the pandemic. As the first wave of coronavirus swept through, UofL increased the number of tests processed up to 1,000 per day, providing those results within 24 hours.

“We have researchers who temporarily dropped all of their other duties to devote their time to the fight against COVID-19,” said Kevin Gardner, UofL’s executive vice president for research and innovation.

A survivor’s story

LaTranza Hicks’ ordeal started with a headache that just wouldn’t go away. By the time she got to UofL Hospital, she had lost her sense of taste and was so weak she could barely dress herself. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent the next month on a ventilator in the intensive care unit. She opened her eyes to a new world, one where she had to learn to identify her nurses by their shoes because masks covered their faces.

Though she had survived the worst part, her treatment wasn’t over. Her team at UofL Hospital cheered her on as she made her “survivor’s walk,” leaving UofL Hospital on a gurney bound for UofL Health-Frazier Rehabilitation Institute.

Darryl Kaelin, medical director of UofL Health-Frazier Rehab, and his team were waiting in a newly created space exclusively for patients recovering from COVID-19.

“This is a devastating infection. It not only affects the lungs, but all the internal organs,” Kaelin said. “People are just wiped out. They really need time to build their strength back up, to build their endurance back up and it’s a very slow process.”

Like so many, the staff at UofL Health adapted to the “new normal” of COVID-19. As of early June, UofL Health treated 434 COVID-19 patients at its clinics and hospitals, in addition to identifying 169 patients at its drive-thru testing sites. The telehealth program was expanded to provide patient access to more than 675 providers. UofL Health-Frazier Rehab introduced a dedicated COVID-19 team of occupational therapists, physical therapists and psychologists; created a safe space for therapy; and limited COVID-19 patients to single rooms to limit the spread of the virus.

Hicks worked with her therapists to regain endurance and strength, specifically in her left leg; her foot was left numb as a result of the virus. Although her lungs were weak, she practiced walking to and from her room and the therapy gym and eventually was able to regain mobility by stepping over objects.

“I’m excited to see how Ms. Hicks does down the road and to get her life back,” Kaelin said. “We at Frazier Rehab and the University of Louisville are just proud to be a part of it.”

“I’m a survivor,” Hicks said. “I really am.”

UofL Magazine
The University of Louisville Magazine is published three times a year by the Office of Communications and Marketing. Content is produced by various authors. For more information, contact Erica Walsh.