UNC-CH Ranks Tops Among US Universities in Coronavirus Research

Ralph Baric, Ph.D.
Ralph Baric, Ph.D. -- UNC photos

If you’ve gotten the impression that North Carolina is a hotbed of research and development to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus, you’d be right. 

Nowhere is that more evident than at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, home to some of the top coronavirus experts in the world and the highest-ranked U.S. university for coronavirus research. 

That’s according to Microsoft Academic, a public search engine for scholarly publications, journals and other literature. Its recent rankings were driven by the prominence and quality of coronavirus research, based on how often scientists cite articles written by university researchers and other experts. 

UNC placed eighth globally. It was the third-highest U.S. institution, right behind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – at number two – and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at number five. The university had the fourth-most research citations for coronavirus and the sixth-most publications. 

The University of Hong Kong came in at number 1 out of close to 267,000 institutions monitored by Microsoft Academic. Only two other schools, both in the Netherlands, ranked higher than UNC. They were Erasmus University Rotterdam and Utrecht University. The University of Bonn in Germany rounded out the top 10. 

A look at the search engine’s most current coronavirus data, however, shows that UNC has jumped up another notch – to seventh – over the past few weeks. 

Microsoft Academic recently added coronavirus research to its listings for medicine, computer science, biology and other fields. It uses a Microsoft Academic Graph (MAG) to map information from more than 233 million publications and their related academic sources. Citations are weighted based on multiple factors, which makes the data more relevant, according to the search engine.

UNC’s coronavirus ranking no surprise

Timothy Sheahan, Ph.D.
Timothy Sheahan, Ph.D.

Those familiar with the work of Ralph Baric, Ph.D., and others in the UNC academic community – and their successes – won’t be surprised by the school’s high ranking for coronavirus research.

Baric, Kenan distinguished professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Public Health, has studied coronaviruses for more than three decades. He is considered one of the leading experts in the field. The Baric Lab he established at the Gillings School specializes in coronaviruses and other emerging infectious diseases.

Two of Baric’s colleagues also have played important roles in recent coronavirus research. Timothy Sheahan, Ph.D., and Amy Sims, Ph.D., led a successful study a couple of years ago to test the potential of a small-molecule inhibitor to fight outbreaks of the illness.

Sheahan is a research assistant professor in the UNC Department of Epidemiology and Sims was a research associate professor there before taking a position at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Washington.

Their study was part of a grant run out of the University of Alabama in partnership with UNC, the Vanderbilt School of Medicine and biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. The findings led to Gilead’s development of remdesivir. The much-discussed antiviral intravenous medicine recently received emergency use authorization from the FDA to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients.

Baric’s team also has helped develop a new antiviral drug to treat the coronavirus through a collaboration with researchers at Vanderbilt and Emory universities. 

The investigational therapy, EIDD-2801, is taken in pill form. If it works, it could limit the spread of COVID-19 and also control future outbreaks of other emerging coronaviruses, according to Sheahan. EIDD-2801 is slated for human trials in the next few months.

Mark Heise, Ph.D.
Mark Heise, Ph.D.

Baric also has worked closely over the years with another scientist from the UNC School of Medicine, Mark Heise, Ph.D. Heise is an influenza expert and a professor of genetics. The two first collaborated during the original SAARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has awarded several grants to support the work of both scientists over the years.

Finally, the UNC Medical Center’s McLendon Clinical Laboratories has developed a diagnostic test for COVID-19 based on a World Health Organization assay. The test is now used at the medical center in Chapel Hill. It also will be available for inpatients at UNC REX Hospital and UNC Health affiliate hospitals across North Carolina, as well as a number of UNC Health clinics.

Bryant Haskins, NCBiotech Writer
Thu, 05/07/2020 - 13:33