Meet the Pitt researchers working to end the COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 3:34 p.m. May 5 

When Pitt announced last month that its researchers were working on a COVID-19 vaccine and seeing promising results, we held our collective breath. Some of us did celebratory handstands, others made GIFs or imagined the new, intolerable heights Pittsburgh pride might reach with a eureka moment in Oakland. 

But weeks after the announcement, few of us know the names or faces of the people leading the charge. We know Jonas Salk, whose Pitt-made polio vaccine ended one of the deadliest epidemics in American history. And now we’d like to introduce some of the people working to end this pandemic, which has claimed more than 245,000 lives worldwide in a matter of months.  

At Pitt, work is primarily focused on two projects: A vaccine delivered via a fingertip-sized patch — called a microneedle array vaccine — and a measles vaccine that’s been genetically modified to also target the novel coronavirus. (That’s the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.) 

These projects are two of the more than 175 vaccine candidates in various stages of development or testing around the world. And these are the people working to make another medical miracle possible in Pittsburgh.

Quotes have been provided by Pitt.

(📸: Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Andrea Gambotto

Title: Associate professor of surgery, Pitt School of Medicine

Hometown: Bari, Italy 

Bio: Attended the Bari University School of Medicine and did a post-doctoral fellowship with the Department of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at Pitt’s School of Medicine. Gambotto has also worked on a Zika vaccine, a MERS vaccine, development of an Ebola vaccine, and more. 

COVID-19 project: Microneedle Array Vaccine

How it works: A vaccine is delivered with a fingertip-sized patch containing 400 tiny needles. “The patch goes on like a Band-Aid and then the needles — which are made entirely of sugar and the protein pieces — simply dissolve into the skin.”  

Why it’s promising: The vaccine was tested on mice and produced enough coronavirus antibodies to potentially neutralize the virus.

Where it stands: The researchers have applied for FDA approval to begin a human clinical trial in the coming months. UPMC spokesperson Erin Hare says the researchers are still negotiating with the FDA and that it’s hard to know exactly when that testing might start.

Quote: “That’s why it’s important to fund vaccine research,” Gambotto said. “You never know where the next pandemic will come from.”

Research team members: Eun Kim, Shaohua Huang, and Thomas W. Kenniston 

(📸: Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Louis Falo

Title: Professor and chair, Department of Dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine

Hometown: Greensburg 

Bio: Attended Pitt and Harvard Medical School and did an internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a fellowship at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, also in Boston. Falo’s career has focused on developing skin cancer immunotherapies, skin-targeted vaccines, treatments for skin aging, and more. 

COVID-19 project: Microneedle Array Vaccine

Quote: “Our ability to rapidly develop this vaccine was a result of scientists with expertise in diverse areas of research working together with a common goal.” 

Do microneedles hurt? “We developed this to build on the original scratch method used to deliver the smallpox vaccine to the skin,” Falo explained. “And it’s actually pretty painless — it feels kind of like Velcro.”

Hurdles: “The major challenges are how to take the vaccine we developed and improve upon it. Right now we don’t know what the response will be in humans but we know there are multiple approaches we can take to make an even better vaccine in animals, and so we see this as an iterative process…” 

Lab members: Geza Erdos, Stephen Balmert, Cara Carey, Nikita Patel, and Jiying Zhang

(📸: Queens University Belfast)

Paul Duprex

Titles: Director, Center for Vaccine Research at UPMC; Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, University of Pittsburgh

Hometown: Lurgan, Northern Ireland 

Bio: Attended Queen’s University in Belfast and Boston University School of Medicine. Duprex said his Center for Vaccine Research at Pitt was quickly awarded funding to join the COVID-19 fight because of Pitt’s long history of working with viruses.

COVID-19 project: Measles Vector Vaccine

How it works: This method involves genetically modifying a measles vaccine to include coronavirus proteins, essentially piggybacking on a time-tested inoculation. The small amounts of weakened coronavirus do the same thing that small amounts of rubeola virus proteins (the cause of measles) do when injected into the body — they jumpstart our immune response without causing a full-blown illness, priming our immune systems to recognize and combat the virus ahead of any future exposures. 

Why it’s promising: The measles vaccine is commonplace and considered safe. Using it in this way speeds up development of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. The same has been done with vaccine attempts for Ebola, HIV-1, MERS, SARS, West Nile, Zika, and more. 

X factor: It’s unclear if a prior measles vaccination has any impact on the effectiveness of this measles-based COVID-19 vaccine. Hare said while that question will need to be addressed in testing, prior research indicates it won’t be an issue.

Where it stands: Duprex’s research team and their partners have made a candidate vaccine that they’re preparing for animal testing in Paris and Pittsburgh. But mass doses likely wouldn’t be available for a year or more.

Quote: “There are virologists all around the world who have been trained for this moment.” 

Lab members: Linda Murphy, Sham Nambulli, and Natasha Tilston-Lunel

Like stories like this? Support us by becoming a member or contributing to our crowdfunding campaign.