By Marrecca Fiore, Illustration By Otto Steininger.
When COVID-19 hit, it was necessary to dramatically scale down laboratory research to maintain social distancing. Now, with some restrictions still in place, UCLA’s scientists are returning to the labs to continue their quests for medical breakthroughs.
The word came down to the researchers at UCLA about two months after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in California: Shut it all down. “It was March 17 — I remember it well,” says Stephen T. Smale, PhD, vice dean for research in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
“It was decided very quickly.” The plan had been to incrementally scale back the number of researchers working in the labs to increase physical distancing and limit contact, “but it became apparent that research would have to be ramped down dramatically, instead,” he says.
There were a few exceptions — research involving animals or delicate cell lines that had to be maintained, clinical trials in which patients were receiving potentially lifesaving treatments, COVID-19-related research. Beyond that, everything else came to a stop.
“It was total and complete,” S. Thomas Carmichael, MD (FEL ’01), PhD, chair of the Department of Neurology, says. “We worked closely with the wet labs and the laboratory faculty to understand what was essential — and how we would actually define that term — and how to keep things going in a way that reduced personal risk and viral exposure.”
By June, as the entire UCLA Health system started moving toward resuming more normal operations, research scientists were allowed to get back in their labs — with certain restrictions. The number of people working in a lab was limited to 25 percent of normal occupancy, or about one person per 250 square feet of laboratory space or one person per laboratory bay (where there normally might be four-to-six people). By August, some labs were able to operate at 50-to-75 percent of their normal capacity. “We are at 50-to-60 percent of normal — still regrettable, but not bad,” Dr. Carmichael says. “One of the lessons we learned was that we can do a lot of our interactions in group discussions and in inter-institutional collaboration through Zoom.”
FOR MANY JUNIOR FACULTY, THE RESEARCH SHUT-DOWN WAS PARTICULARLY WORRISOME. “It was the right thing to do at that moment, and it was all hands on deck,” says Yalda Afshar, MD (FEL ’19), PhD, assistant professor-in-residence of obstetrics and gynecology and a physician-scientist whose research is focused on congenital heart disease and placental development. But, “a lot of the cells that we work with are really precious tissues from rare diseases, and you worry about a lost opportunity,” she says. “We took care and made sure that we kept our most precious tissues so that we could work with them when it became safe to do so again.”
Dr. Afshar also was concerned that her grant was running out. “Am I going to have enough data to submit my progress report? How am I going to get a new research-funding grant? That anxiety is there. But as I watched my colleagues, more senior faculty, my mentors going through the same thing, it became clear that we’re all in this together,” she says. “And it actually brought the scientific community really close and resulted in really creative ways of doing science.”
It also led to a shift among some faculty in their research focus, toward COVID-19. For Yibin Wang, PhD, professor of molecular medicine, that meant turning his attention from cardiometabolic diseases and the impact of obesity and diabetes on cardiovascular health to their impact on patients infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “The work we have been doing is very relevant to addressing issues around this disease,” Dr. Wang says. “If you look at what’s happening with COVID-19, we’ve learned that only four-to-five percent of patients who are infected will have a very severe outcome. But if you look at people with severe obesity and cardiovascular-compromised individuals, the percentage of people with severe outcomes can reach as high as 60 percent.”
Dr. Afshar, too, has found relevance for the research she regularly does in addressing impacts of COVID-19. “I study pregnancy-related diseases in women or their fetuses, and COVID-19 has implications in pregnancy,” she says. “So now I have made my focus studying COVID-19 in pregnancy, changing my research lens to look at what now is an acute public-health need.”
The hiatus from the labs also offered some unanticipated upsides. “I think a lot of our researchers shifted gears and were able to pursue some things that they’d wanted to do but didn’t have time for,” Dr. Smale says.
That is true for Dr. Afshar. “We started asking different questions,” she says. “We spent more time writing and working off campus. We finished publications that had been sitting on our desks for a long time that we should have been working on. I think it really showed the scientific community how we can be progressive and iterative in addressing clinically relevant questions, not necessarily at the bench but by utilizing the data we already have.”
WHILE THE RESEARCHERS ARE ANXIOUS TO GET BACK INTO THEIR LABS, the trade-offs that had to be made during the shutdown may continue to ripple into the future. Take, for example, Zoom, the now ubiquitous online meeting platform. “In the beginning of this, we weren’t very good at it,” Dr. Carmichael says. “But we have gotten better. A lot of science, and a lot of scientific meetings, can be done remotely, and perhaps that will turn out to be a good thing.”
Sure, the scientists would like to be able to go back to how things were before COVID-19 — “You really can’t replace meeting with your colleagues one-on-one,” Dr. Wang says — but “I also think we have learned how to work more efficiently with telecommunication platforms.”
The takeaway, Roger Wakimoto, PhD, vice chancellor for research and the architect of the research ramp down/ramp up, is that it’s not always necessary to meet face-to-face. “So often, people fly in from other parts of the country, we sit at a table and we sign documents,” he says. All that now can be done online. “There was a learning curve, and we’re still figuring it out, but we now know what the banks have known for some time: You don’t have to be sitting in front of someone else to sign a document.”
One open question that remains, even as UCLA’s researchers resume their work in the labs, is how to welcome new students into those laboratories this fall. “Will the logistical challenges make labs reluctant to take in new students?” Dr. Smale asks. “Hopefully, faculty will find ways to welcome and train our new PhD candidates and medical students, while adhering to our strict protocols, to ensure the safety of everyone in our laboratories.”
Dr. Wang says his team members’ resilience, eagerness to join the fight against the pandemic and willingness to embrace new ways of working are what’s kept the morale high and wheels in motion on both new and old projects. “They found ingenious ways to improve the safety of the lab while performing experiments,” he says. “I’m happy to see that the outcomes of those improvements really paid off. Our lab has actually been very productive, probably one of the most productive times for us in terms of publications, grants and so forth. I am grateful to them, and they are the true heroes.”
Marrecca Fiore is a senior media relations officer for UCLA Health and a former print and broadcast health reporter.