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Corona research: FWF funds MedUni project on ACE2 enzyme

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Oliver Langer Cpoyright Luiza Puiu FWF

(Vienna, 17 August 2020) As part of its "SARS-CoV-2 emergency funding" programme, the Austrian Science Funds (FWF) is providing €1.5 million for basic coronavirus research in Austria and is financing four projects in the Tyrol and Vienna, including one at MedUni Vienna. Pharmacist Oliver Langer from MedUni Vienna's Department of Clinical Pharmacology and his group are developing a method that can be used for in-depth analysis of the impact of antihypertensive drugs in cases of COVID-19.

In order to provide rapid funding for coronavirus research in Austria, the FWF established a "Fast Track" at the start of the pandemic. In its second tranche of funding, the FWS is releasing a total of €1.5 million to fund four projects. These projects prevailed over their competitors in an international assessment, due to their excellent quality. One research project is starting at MedUni Vienna, two at the University of Vienna and one, which is co-financed by the federal state of Tyrol, at the Medical University of Innsbruck.

"Austrian researchers now have to strike out in new directions. The projects financed by the FWF will enable them to produce new cutting-edge research of the very highest international standard," says Federal Minister Heinz Faßmann. The fact that one project is being co-financed by the state of Tyrol is testament to the collective will to promote cutting-edge research in Austria."

"Although more research than ever before is being conducted at pace on one single topic, there are still significant gaps in our knowledge in various areas of research. The four newly approved projects are impressive due to their scientific excellence and will therefore help to close these gaps," stresses FWS President Klement Tockner, also pointing to the joint finance provided by the state of Tyrol as a positive example of collaboration with the Austrian states.

Pharmacist Oliver Langer from MedUni Vienna's Department of Clinical Pharmacology is working with chemist Christoph Denk from Vienna University of Technology and Thomas Wanek from AIT Austrian Institute of Technology to develop a new method for studying the role of antihypertensive drugs in COVID-19 patients. Up until now, it has not been possible to clarify the role of the ACE2 enzyme. This enzyme enables the coronavirus to penetrate the cell and take the first step towards establishing a viral infection. With the aid of the FWS emergency funding, Langer and his group are now developing a method for measuring the density of ACE2 in tissue by Positron Emission Tomography (PET) using a radioactive marker, to provide a more accurate analysis of the impact of antihypertensives. The method and the results it produces will contribute to the development of new drugs to combat COVID-19.

The other projects
Molecular biologist and immunologist Wilfried Posch from the Medical University of Innsbruck is investigating hitherto unresolved questions about the coronavirus, for the first time using a 3D model of the respiratory tract. The model consists of human cells and has been extended to include components of the immune system. It can be used to study the interaction between the virus on the mucous membrane barriers of the respiratory system and the cells. This can be used to test new methods of preventing the virus from entering.

A multidisciplinary team led by social scientist Bernhard Kittel from the Vienna Center for Electoral Research (VieCER) of the University of Vienna is studying the attitudes, behaviours and reactions of people living in Austria to the coronavirus crisis. The "Austrian Corona Panel" is one of the largest social science studies on coronavirus in Austria and involves a monthly survey of 1,500 people, with the aim of providing solid and reliable data.

And finally, pharmacist Judith Rollinger and her team from the University of Vienna are investigating which naturally occurring antiviral substances can be used to treat acute respiratory disease. In order to track down other promising drug candidates, the scientist is combining empirical knowledge from traditional medicine with Big Data science and complex computer simulations. Using this method, the research group has already managed to isolate plant compounds that are active against influenza viruses and also against pneumococci.

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