Feature: Training infectious disease research leaders

In head-to-toe PPE, two postdoctoral fellows work side-by-side inside the biocontainment lab
By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

Before entering the lab each morning, Mariya Goncheva, PhD, puts on clean scrubs, two pairs of booties, two pairs of gloves, a gown and a full hood that covers her entire head and shoulders. She is connected by a hose to a positive pressure powered air respirator which pumps clean air into the hood.

Inside the Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) Facility at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Goncheva is working with live SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, so not a millimetre of skin can be exposed, and every molecule of air she breathes has to be filtered.

Goncheva is one of only a handful of trainees who went through a rigorous training process to be able to work in ImPaKT, a world-class biocontainment level 3 facility (CL3) designed specifically to study deadly viruses and bacteria. The facility became operational just months before the pandemic was declared, providing researchers and trainees with a crucial space to understand and better treat COVID-19.

It is also ground zero for training research leaders to tackle the next pandemic.

postdoctoral fellow Mariya Goncheva looks at a plate from behind PPE that covvers her full face and shoulders“Being able to do this work in a CL3 containment facility is a privilege,” said Goncheva, a postdoctoral fellow at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “Our work has always been important, but now I feel like I am able to combine all my years of training into something that is influencing all of our everyday lives.”

Goncheva is spearheading a unique project investigating the relationship between bacterial infections and COVID-19.

As many as 30 per cent of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 also develop bacterial infections in the lungs, increasing complications and patient’s chance of dying.

“It’s scary because the bacteria seem to be influencing the virus, which is already bad on its own, to be even worse,” said Goncheva.

Her previous research as a PhD student focused on the relationship between bacterial lung infections and influenza A, and she has been able to use the concepts from her past work to develop the research protocols for SARS-CoV-2.

Her supervisor, David Heinrichs, PhD, says the training that these young scientists are receiving in ImPaKT is crucial to pathogen research, not just for this pandemic, but for the future.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we desperately need to train scientists to be able to rapidly respond to emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” said Heinrichs. “We need these individuals to drive the discovery-based science to find solutions to the next pathogen that may emerge.”

Working closely alongside Goncheva in ImPaKT is postdoctoral fellow Corby Fink, PhD, whose research aims to better understand the body’s immune response to the virus that causes COVID-19. After completing his PhD at Robarts Research Institute, Fink pivoted his research quickly in April 2020 from HIV to COVID-19.

“No one wants a pandemic to happen, but when it did, it enabled us to get moving very quickly on our research because of ImPaKT,” said Fink. “I was applying what I’d already done in a completely different setting to this new virus that we knew very little about.”

Fink began his undergraduate training at Western in 2009, and is now working shoulder-to-shoulder alongside some of those professors who taught him over a decade ago.

"It's pretty cool to see that link from the very beginning to where I am now, and it feels good to know that in some way we are contributing to finding answers in this pandemic through our published work," he said.

Fink’s work involves examining the antibodies present in the blood of patients who had been previously infected and recovered from COVID-19, providing the opportunity to see how an immune response develops and to tailor future treatments.

“Corby’s work enhances our limited understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 viral life cycle, and the role antibodies play in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2,” said Jimmy Dikeakos, PhD, Associate Professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, who co-supervises Fink along with Greg Dekaban, PhD.