Fall 2020

‘The audacity to do something’

U researchers, clinicians, and scientists of all stripes lend their expertise to help solve COVID-19 challenges

It was Dec. 29, 2019, and Jakub Tolar, M.D., Ph.D., was alarmed. “Where is all the black?” he thought.

Tolar, the dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School and vice president for clinical affairs, was examining a CT scan from one of the earliest known COVID-19 cases in Asia.

The patient’s lungs had been overtaken by SARS-CoV-2—the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“Black means you have air in your lungs,” Tolar says. “There was very little black on this scan.” 

That’s when he realized COVID-19 was unlike anything he’d seen before. And at that point, he knew the University would need an all-hands-on-deck effort to respond to an emerging global pandemic.

By the time the virus breached the borders of Minnesota, several U researchers had redeployed their expertise in a united front against the pandemic.

In the months since, many more have joined them. Much of their work has been powered by the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs’ CO:VID (Collaborative Outcomes: Visionary Innovation & Discovery) grant program, created to support promising COVID-19-related research ideas and funded in part by philanthropy.

“We have always looked at our people as the best asset we have,” Tolar says. “We used our vast imagination and knowledge and crystallized it into action. We had the audacity to do something.”

Here are just a few examples of the quick-thinking experts at the U who turned their attention toward a challenge far outside their usual scope.


Jeffrey Miller, M.D.

Medical School Department of Medicine,
Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Transplantation
Masonic Cancer Center


What if a cancer treatment pioneered at the U also could be used to treat COVID-19?

Miller is known internationally for his work using natural killer (NK) cell therapy to fight cancer. NK cells are components of the immune system that seek out and destroy harmful cells in the body. The two main invaders they’re after: cancer and viruses.

Miller has shown that NK cell therapy can induce remission in leukemia patients who didn’t respond to standard treatment. And now, through a clinical study he launched with Joshua Rhein, M.D., an M Health Fairview infectious disease physician, and supported by a matching gift challenge from Regis Corporation, he hopes to show that an off-the-shelf dose of NK cells can help a person more effectively fight off COVID-19 as well.

“The idea is that these super-powered NK cells can go on a search-and-destroy mission, finding infected cells and killing them on the spot,” Miller explains.


Heather Nelson, Ph.D.

School of Public Health
Masonic Cancer Center

There’s no doubt COVID-19 carries a higher risk of severe complications and death for people with compromised immune systems, including those who have been diagnosed with cancer.

But are there certain people with cancer who are even more susceptible to the virus’ worst effects? That’s what Nelson wants to know.

The Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota maintains several registries and biobanks that contain a wealth of information about the immune systems of patients treated at M Health Fairview clinics and hospitals.

Nelson will mine that data and link it with the U’s COVID-19 database, with the goal of uncovering valuable information about what qualities make a person’s immune system better suited to fight the virus. Potential insights could be relevant to cancer patients and the general public alike.

“We have this unique biobank resource at the Masonic Cancer Center; let’s see what it can tell us,” Nelson says.


Jin O-Uchi, M.D., Ph.D.

Medical School Department of Medicine,
Division of Cardiology

O-Uchi admits he’s not a virus expert. But that hasn’t stopped the M Health Fairview cardiologist from contributing to the U’s COVID-19 response.

He and his team are exploring why, exactly, people with preexisting heart concerns like high blood pressure have a higher risk of death when they contract the virus.

He thinks COVID-19 produces abnormal ion channels in heart cells, introducing a potentially fatal flaw in an otherwise finely tuned part of the body. O-Uchi thinks the ion channels may be responsible for arrhythmias and even cardiac arrest in patients with COVID-19.

O-Uchi says data from the SARS outbreak nearly 20 years ago suggest magnesium supplementation could be effective in blocking ion channels.

If that’s the case, he says, it would make the supplement an inexpensive but valuable tool in treating a deadly complication of COVID-19.

“We need a lot of different ideas for how to protect people from this,” he says. “Otherwise, it will be hard for everyone to be safe.”


Mark Osborn, Ph.D.

Medical School Department of Pediatrics
Masonic Cancer Center

As COVID-19 spread across the globe, Osborn made a shopping list of sorts. On it were easily attainable laboratory materials he would need to create a diagnostic test for COVID-19, one that he hoped would be both fast and accurate.

Normally, Osborn spends his time studying the genetic specificities of childhood diseases, including pediatric cancer.

Armed with that expertise (and his supply list), he set out to create a COVID-19 test that not only delivers results in just an hour, but also detects different genetic strains of the virus, including those that may be more dangerous. His test doesn’t require any specialized equipment or lab space, meaning it can be completed in doctors’ offices and clinics across the state.

Osborn is hopeful that the test will be ready for statewide use sometime this fall.

“The better and faster the test is,” Osborn says, “the better you can track the virus’ spread, the sooner doctors can start treatment, the more confidently policymakers can make decisions about staying at home or opening up.”


Erin Osterholm, M.D.

Medical School Department of Pediatrics 

Growing up, Osterholm probably heard the word “pandemic” more often than most kids did.

That’s what happens when your dad is Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., a world-renowned epidemiologist, director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, and a pandemic preparedness expert.

“I’m sure that’s why I took this a lot more seriously early on,” the younger Osterholm says of COVID-19.

Today, Erin Osterholm oversees the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. In a collision of paternal inspiration and professional curiosity, she’s using her unique perspective to explore whether COVID-19 can be transmitted from new mothers to their newborns via breast milk. To find out, she’ll test existing blood samples from NICU babies and their mothers’ breast milk for COVID-19.

“There might be no transmission,” she says. “But because breast milk is the best source of infant nutrition, we want to be sure.”


David Odde, Ph.D.

College of Science and Engineering
Department of Biomedical Engineering
Masonic Cancer Center

When it comes to predicting the future of COVID-19 care, Odde is off to a good start.

He uses computer models and big data to simulate life at the microscopic level. In the past, he’s predicted how cancer cells will behave under specific circumstances, like in response to chemotherapy.


Now Odde is using that modeling technique to predict which medications—out of the thousands in existence—might be effective in fighting COVID-19. His models predicted that hydroxychloroquine wouldn’t be effective against the virus (it wasn’t, studies showed), while remdesivir may hold promise (it does, research says). His goal is to give researchers a leg up in designing clinical trials by identifying drugs that could best dismantle the virus’ efforts to replicate inside the body. 

“We can’t feasibly test every drug in an actual clinical trial,” Odde says. “We’re trying to predict which ones are going to succeed or fail before they ever reach a person.”