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Radical Research: Combating the COVID-19 Virus

April 23, 2020

While the nation’s healthcare workers battle on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical researchers are feverishly working behind the scenes to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

One such researcher is Angelo State alumnus Jake Gonzales, who is part of a team working in the Bunnik Lab at UT Health San Antonio.

“Our goal is to understand two things,” Gonzales said. “First, are people who survive a COVID-19 viral infection able to produce protective antibodies that shield them from a future infection? And if so, how long does this protection last, and is there a long-term memory response should someone get infected again?”

“Because the COVID-19 virus is so novel,” he added, “we just simply don’t know how our body’s immune systems, specifically antibodies produced against the virus, will perform against it.”

Using blood samples from people who have survived being infected with COVID-19, Gonzales and his teammates are isolating specific white blood cells that are part of our immune system.

Gonzales working with samples in the Bunnik Lab at UT Health San Antonio.Gonzales working with samples in the Bunnik Lab at UT Health San Antonio.“We focus on white blood cells called ‘B cells’ because their job is to produce antibodies that mediate long-term immunity,” Gonzales said. “We are able to isolate and study B cells that produce antibodies that target proteins that the COVID-19 virus uses to invade our cells. By studying these people over time, we can determine how long these antibodies are maintained following infection, and evaluate whether they are effective at stopping the virus.”

Since the pandemic hit, the Bunnik Lab team has dropped everything except the COVID-19 project. Gonzales had been working on a similar project dealing with Malaria, where he ran the entire process himself. Now, he is part of a true team effort.

“Everyone in the lab is working together to split the duties in a way that really streamlines the process,” Gonzales said. “My specific role is to make and prepare the virus proteins so that other members of my lab can isolate B cells that produce antibodies that recognize those proteins. We can then further study these antibodies through various experiments, which we will spread out across the lab to generate data as soon as possible.”

“Without the guidance and support of my professors and friends at ASU, I don’t think I would have found my love for scientific research.”

While pharmaceutical companies around the world race to find the first vaccine for COVID-19, the Bunnik Lab’s immunity research goals are more long-term. Lead researcher Dr. Evelien Bunnik explained to San Antonio’s KSAT-TV News.

“Those kinds of questions are really important to know also for vaccine development,” Bunnik said. “How long will a vaccine be protective, and will people need booster shots at some point?”

The Bunnik Lab research could also lead to improved COVID-19 vaccines down the road, and Gonzales is thrilled to be involved.

“I think ‘exciting’ is a huge understatement,” Gonzales said. “Once this virus started spreading rapidly across the globe, I think all of us in the Bunnik Lab knew right away that we already had the tools available to study this disease and that we had a duty to do so.”

Currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Program at UT Health San Antonio, Gonzales graduated magna cum laude from ASU in 2016 with his bachelor’s degree in biology. Originally a pre-med major, he credits an immunology course taught by former ASU biology professor Dr. Crosby Jones with sparking his change of track into medical research.

“I learned so much in that one single immunology course that I don’t think I would be here today if I hadn’t taken that class,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales (upper left) with some of his fellow ASU biology graduates in 2016.Gonzales (upper left) with some of his fellow ASU biology graduates in 2016.He also singled out Dr. Shirley Eoff, director of the ASU Honors Program, and biology professors Dr. Nicholas Negovetich and Dr. Russell Wilke for helping steer him in the right direction toward his current success.

“The excellence of the Biology Department and the close-knit community between the professors and the students was also definitely a major part of it,” Gonzales said. “The commitment of the professors to interact with students really helped with truly grasping the subject matter.”

“Without the guidance and support of my professors and friends at ASU, I don’t think I would have found my love for scientific research.”

  • Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre is a news and information specialist at Angelo State University. 
    Email Tom at tom.nurre@angelo.edu.

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