While one CC grad works on antiviral treatments, another is a 'long-haul' survivor

Two Colorado College alums in the time of coronavirus

Good morning, and happy Wednesday. On this pre-pandemic date last year, multilingual students arrived at the Springs and Denver airports for the Colorado College Global Scholars Program. (Because of the coronavirus, the college has canceled the program this summer.)

Today we connect with a pair of Colorado College graduates with two very different stories in the time of the virus. One is researching antiviral treatments for SARS-CoV-2 in grad school; the other explains his journey as a “long-haul” COVID-19 survivor.

➡️ICYMI: Yesterday, we explained Colorado College’s updated fall field trip policy and recapped what you missed from Colorado College’s Town Hall on Housing and Meals.

CC alumna publishes SARS-CoV-2 research in Nature

Viral proteins are represented by red diamonds, and the lines indicate chemical relationships between the proteins and the antiviral treatments the researchers studied for their work published in Nature. Image courtesy of Tia Tummino.

After graduation, Colorado College alumna Tia Tummino ’16 worked as a paraprofessional in the psychology department and then moved to San Francisco for graduate school, where she is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California San Francisco. Tummino is currently working in the laboratory of Brian Shoichet, where she is collaborating on new SARS-CoV-2 research. On Monday, Tummino connected with The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project to explain her research, how CC prepared her for grad school, and her work-from-home life. (Last week, the CCRP spoke to CC alumna Izabela Ragan ’09 about a possible COVID-19 vaccine she is working on at Colorado State University.)

🧪 Researching possible antiviral treatments for SARS-CoV-2

Before the pandemic hit, Tummino was researching non-opioid pain therapies. The process involves identifying non-opioid proteins and testing them in animal studies to see if they respond to pain. When her lab began researching COVID-19, Tummino and her colleagues used their understanding of proteins and how they act in the body to look for new molecules that could inhibit parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  

With their understanding of how the virus would respond to certain proteins, the researchers began to explore existing antiviral medications to see if anything that was already safe for humans could be used for COVID-19. The UCSF researchers collaborated with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and the Institut Pasteur in France, who would test molecules sent by the UCSF team for antiviral efficacy. 

Tummino is an author on an April 30 article published in the prestigious journal Nature about the 66 proteins they identified that are targeted by 69 existing compounds, 29 of which are already approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“[It’s] a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on a Nature paper, something that I never thought was possible coming into grad school,” Tummino says. “When I graduate, I’ll look back on this as like the coolest thing that I was able to do in grad school.”

During this process, Tummino has also worked with new chemical molecules and learned about molecular interactions, information she says will be applicable to her Ph.D. research on non-opioid pain treatments. 

💻 How Tummino transitioned from working in a lab to working from home

For Tummino, the transition to #WFH life was fairly seamless. Good thing, too, because she says she will be working from home until at least January.

“I didn’t have a day off,” she says. “There wasn’t a morning where I was like, how am I going to be able to do my work if I can’t go into the lab anymore? So I think if anything, it’s kept me on track.”

At UCSF, only one person per four lab spots are allowed to work in person, but Tummino says she could access a lot of the tools she needed for her work on the Internet. She also has an at-home office space in a different room than her bedroom, which she says helps keep her work-from-home and home lives separate.

“It is challenging though to separate, you know, at what point do I turn my computer off and leave the office for the day?” Tummino says. “Because sometimes you’ll just be so into something that you can’t turn away.”

🏔 How CC prepared her for grad school

The Nature paper was “all hands on deck,” Tummino says, moving swiftly from data to idea to publication. Working with fast deadlines is something she believes Colorado College prepared her well for.

“I think CC really taught me how to do a lot of work in a short amount of time, but also enjoy everything else that comes along with life,” she says. “Especially when you meet challenges, I feel like CC students are really well-equipped to deal with those things.”

‘Left in the dark’: For thousands of ‘long-haulers’ like one CC grad, the road to recovery is a winding, frustrating path

Nearly 12 weeks have passed since Colorado College alumnus Miles Griffis ’16 noticed the first symptoms of what has now become a three-month battle with a presumed case of COVID-19. 

Griffis calls himself a COVID-19 “long-hauler,” a name to describe a growing group of thousands who just can’t seem to shake what they believe is the novel coronavirus. Long-haulers have reported over 60 symptoms, some of which are not the “traditional” ones that accompany a case of SARS-CoV-2. 

Griffis, an English-major-turned-journalist, remembers well the initial signs that something was wrong. It was April 17, and he was out for a short, midday walk to break up his work day when a bout of fatigue and dizziness hit him like a train.

“It’s not tiredness, it’s just this extreme fatigue that you’re almost so tired you can’t even sleep,” he told the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project over the phone recently. “It’s one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Five days later, body aches that tore through his left leg and nausea joined persistent feelings of vertigo, lightheadedness, and that dreaded fatigue. At the time, Griffis had ruled out the coronavirus as a potential cause because he didn’t have any of the classic symptoms: dry cough, fever, or shortness of breath. 

“It’s quite a scary place to be,” Griffis said. “We’re sort of left in the dark.”

Like anyone would, Griffis wanted answers. But because of testing shortages in Los Angeles, he wasn’t able to get a swab test until two weeks after his symptoms hit. The results came back negative. Two weeks later, he got swabbed again. Negative. About a month after his first symptoms, his doctor took a full blood panel, and everything came back “normal and healthy.” The doctor then ran an antibody test: Negative.

In a recent survey by the COVID-19 support group Body Politic of 640 people who identify as “long-haulers,” only 23.1% reported testing positive for COVID-19, while 27.5% reported testing negative; 47.8% were not tested. On average, the respondents who reported testing positive received testing earlier in their trajectory than those who reported testing negative — a factor Griffis thinks could have come into play with his own test results.

“I don’t get the result of a positive, so it makes you feel really crazy,” Griffis said. “Like you don’t have anything.”

Now, nearly three months later, Griffis is still facing a slew of symptoms: Extreme fatigue. Constant dizziness. Headaches that he says almost never go away. Body pains, mostly in his left leg, but sometimes in his arms. Muscle twitching in his left side. Back pain. Shortness of breath. The list goes on. Before, the backcountry guide and former volunteer wildland firefighter was an avid backpacker, hiker, runner, and rock climber. Now, he has to stick to short walks or easy hikes. 

The symptoms come in waves. A couple days where he feels a bit better are followed by days that feel like his first. Such a nonlinear experience echoes from members of online support groups, like a Body Politic Slack channel for members to share success stories. Good news is welcome but comes with caution, as the next day could leave someone feeling like they’re back at the beginning. 

“My first month was pretty terrible, and I think I have better days now, and a little bit more energy,” Griffis said. “This week has been really, really tough, so it sort of feels like I’m back to the first months.”

According to guidelines set by the World Health Organization, Griffis’s case would fall into the “mild to moderate” category because he has not gone on a ventilator or been admitted into an ICU. 

“Take this virus incredibly seriously,” Griffis said. “This has been like the worst experience of my life, and this is just a mild case.”

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is a student-faculty collaboration by Colorado College student journalists Miriam Brown and Arielle Gordon, Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism Corey Hutchins, Assistant Professor of English Najnin Islam, and Journalism Institute Director Steven Hayward. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear from time to time, as will infographics by Colorado College students Rana Abdu, Aleesa Chua, Sara Dixon, Jia Mei, and Lindsey Smith.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

📬 Enter your email address to subscribe and get the newsletter in your inbox each time it comes out. You can reach us with questions, feedback, or news tips by emailing ccreportingproject@gmail.com.