Fighting corona with machine learning

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Scientists of the TUM are conducting laboratory and computer research on the cla

Scientists of the TUM are conducting laboratory and computer research on the classification and therapy of Covid-19. Image: Andreas Heddergott / TUM

The Bavarian Research Foundation is funding five research projects on Covid-19

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is starting five new research projects that focus on the coronavirus and the search for new active ingredients. For example, the use of algorithms could ensure a more precise classification of the illness in the future. New therapeutic methods and the targeted prevention of the long-term effects will also be researched in other projects. The Bavarian Research Foundation (BFS) is funding the projects with around ¤ 1.5 million.

With their own funding focus, the Bavarian Research Foundation wants to accelerate research on the novel coronavirus in the state of Bavaria and contribute to the containment and fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Five interdisciplinary TUM project proposals passed the application procedure with success and will now be funded.

The Covid-19 pulmonary disease is a novel viral pulmonary inflammation. With low-dose computer tomography (CT) of the lungs, not only can infections be detected, but doctors can also see the extent to which the lungs are affected, something which they cannot do with a standard Covid laboratory test. Low-dose CTs require only a small amount of radiation. The aim of the project "The Early Detection and Classification of Covid-19 Pneumonia by Means of Computer Tomography and Machine Learning" is to apply machine learning methods to low-dose CTs of Covid-19 patients in order to perform an individual, automated detection, quantification and risk evaluation of the disease. The intention is that at the end of the project carried out at the university hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar, the web-based algorithms that have been developed could be rolled out to and used in other hospitals.

The project is led by Prof. Marcus R. Makowski, Director of the Institute for Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology at the university hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar and member of the Munich School of BioEngineering. In addition, the Chair of Computer Aided Medical Procedures & Augmented Reality, Prof. Nassir Navab , who carries out research at the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence, and Siemens Healthineers AG will also be involved in this project. The foundation has granted € 682,000 of funding for this project.

Patients that have gone through Covid-19 often continue to suffer from reduced lung function for a long time after initial recovery. One cause of this is scarring of the lung tissue, also known as pulmonary fibrosis. A small endogenous RNA molecule, microRNA, is suspected to promote this disease process. Synthetically manufactured inhibitors (anti-miR oligonucleotides) which neutralize microRNA are a promising therapeutic strategy to combat this condition. However, if administered to patients intravenously, it is often difficult for anti-miR molecules to reach sufficient concentrations in specific tissues. This raises the question whether inhalation of such an anti-miR would be a feasible route of administration to treat lung fibrosis.

The aim of the project "Anti-miR Against Pulmonary Fibrosis", led by Stefan Engelhardt, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the TUM , and in partnership with Isar Bioscience GmbH, is to develop an inhalation procedure that will target the affected cells in the lungs with high concentrations of the active ingredient. This RNA-based approach in the lung could lead to a new treatment of pulmonary fibrosis in patients after Covid-19. This project will receive € 478,000 in funding.

In order to enter the human host cells, SARS-CoV-2 needs to bond viral spike proteins to Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE2), which can be found on the surface of the cell membrane. The project "The Characterization of ACE2-IgC-Constructs" aims to develop therapeutic fusion proteins which would interrupt and prevent this bonding. The variations of potentially suitable proteins designed through sequence modeling must be structurally and functionally characterized so that the important properties needed for therapeutic applications can be identified.

The project is a collaboration between the work groups of Prof. Johannes Buchner (Chair of Biotechnology, TUM) and Prof. Ulrike Protzer (Chair of Virology, TUM) and Formycon AG, an independent developer of biopharmaceuticals with its headquarters in Martinsried. The BFS has granted € 290,000 of funding for this project.

The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is made up of RNA. At the moment, we only know very little about the interactions between the RNA of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the proteins in the human host cells. Each essential interaction for the virus is a potential weak spot which can be impaired in a targeted way with drugs. The aim of this project is to find all the human proteins that interact with SARS-CoV-2 RNA. This will hopefully result in the creation of a screening platform which can be universally applied to all viral infections in the future, and not just SARS-CoV-2, and facilitate a fast and systematic identification of target proteins for the development of drugs.

The project is a collaboration between the work group of Prof. Bernhard Küster (Chair of Proteomics and Bioanalytics, TUM), the work group of Prof. Andreas Pichlmair (Institute for Virology, TUM) and the company OmicScouts GmbH, a mass spectrometry and proteomics company that focuses on active ingredient and biomarker research and that is headquartered in Freising. The BFS has granted € 50,000 of funding for this project.

Covid-19 pulmonary disease typically has two phases. The often milder symptoms during the first week of infection do not give any indication of a possible later clinical deterioration in the second phase which then requires intensive medical treatment. For this reason, there is a lot of interest in molecular biomarkers which could help medical professionals to identify such patients early on. The aim of the project "Extracellular Vesicles for Diagnosing Covid-19" is to identify molecular signatures in the extracellular vesicles circulating in the bloodstream. The biomarkers in the extracellular vesicles allow for an early detection of Covid-19 pneumonia and at-risk patients, and they can also provide indications of inflammation-related vascular damage with risks of thrombosis and embolism.

While the work group of Prof. Michael W. Pfaffl , Chair for Animal Physiology and Immunology at the TUM School of Life Sciences is involved in the project, the project will actually be led by LMU Munich. IMGM Laboratories GmbH, based in Martinsried, is also involved in this project. This project will receive around € 43,000 in funding.


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