UTHSC lab is leading research facility in search for drug to treat novel coronavirus

UTHSC lab works to find vaccine for coronavirus

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A researcher at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis is on the front lines when it comes to developing a drug to help treat COVID-19.

Dr. Colleen Jonsson and her team have worked on many infamous infectious diseases over the years, including influenza and West Nile Virus. Now they are working non-stop to discover which drugs treat the novel coronavirus most effectively.

Dr. Colleen Jonsson is leading a team of researchers right here in Memphis in critical work discovering a drug to treat the novel coronavirus. Dr. Jonsson and her team work in a level 3 Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at UTHSC. There are only 11 of these labs in the entire country.

“These labs were created after the scares that we had from 9/11 with anthrax,” Dr. Colleen Jonsson, UTHSC Researcher said.

The lab is kept very private and secure. In the last week, UTHSC researchers received one of the first coronavirus samples from a patient in Washington state. Soon, researchers will test how different FDA approved compounds affect the virus, to help develop a drug to treat COVID-19.

“We add cells, and then we add compound and then we add virus,” Jonsson said. “And then after 48 to 72 hours, we look to see how much of the virus is left alive.”

The work is done in an air-sealed room. Researchers wear protective gear and are assisted by automation.

“We have the ability to move much faster than if one would do it by hand and also when you’re doing it by hand you introduce more error than if you have a robot,” Jonsson said.

Dr. Jonsson admits her team feels a sense of urgency and is working around the clock, testing thousands of potential drug compounds a day.

In terms of seeing results, Dr. Jonsson hopes their rare, state-of-the-art laboratory and experienced scientists can pinpoint which drugs work best as soon as possible.

“Over this upcoming month we’re going to learn a lot,” Jonsson said. “So the answer should be coming forthwith in the next weeks in terms of where we’re at and how well our drugs work against this new coronavirus.”

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Dr. Jonsson says the other 10 Level 3 biocontainment laboratories are all doing research in one area or another on the novel coronavirus, including working on a potential vaccine.

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