Medicine’s Stephanie Langel receives award for research on transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in aerosols

Stephanie Langel, assistant professor in the Center for Global Health and Diseases and Department of Pathology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, was awarded a Hypothesis Fund seed grant to investigate how antibodies in our respiratory tract impact transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs when people inhale respiratory droplets containing the virus, which can be generated during sneezing, coughing, singing or even breathing. However, virus-fighting antibodies are also found in the respiratory tract, including saliva, nasal secretions and lungs. Langel’s research focuses on understanding whether antibodies that are bound to SARS-CoV-2 impact the aerodynamics of aerosols and their ability to infect a nearby individual. To do this, she is combining her background in immunology and virology with aerosol science approaches for an ultrasensitive investigation of aerosols.

“The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were highly successful in preventing severe disease and death against SARS-CoV-2. However, the role of these vaccines and systemic immunity against SARS-CoV-2 airborne transmission is less understood,” Langel said. “We need to better understand immunity at mucosal surfaces, where the virus first enters the body. Given the potential for next generation mucosal vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, it is integral that we define the mechanisms by which antibodies in the mouth, nose, and lungs impact airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2. This also has implications for other respiratory viruses like influenza.”

Langel also started collaborating with Sears think[box] and the Case School of Engineering to improve upon the design of her aerosol chambers to allow for capture of aerosols before and after SARS-CoV-2 infection in animal models.

“Aerosols are an understudied immune compartment as they are an extension of the upper respiratory tract,” Langel said. “We hypothesize that aerosols contain answers for how/when SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted and are excited to pursue this question with funding from the Hypothesis Fund”.

Launched in 2022, the Hypothesis Fund advances scientific knowledge by supporting early-stage, innovative research that increases our adaptability against systemic risks to the health of people and the planet. The Hypothesis Fund uses a novel selection system for its grantees; its diverse network of scientist ‘scouts,’ highly accomplished researchers in their own right, seek out bold research with potential for high impact that may otherwise not find funding through traditional mechanisms because of their high-risk nature. 

“The Hypothesis Fund supports scientists in pursuing bold basic research directions with an eye toward societal impact. We applaud Dr. Langel’s exploration of fundamental science with the potential to yield new insights that benefit us all,” said David Sanford, Hypothesis Fund CEO and founder. Langel was nominated by Scout Wilton Williams, who shared: “The results of this project have potential to open an emerging area of study in respiratory virus biology and vaccinology, with potential to impact the way we evaluate the effectiveness of vaccines.” Langel is in the first group of grantees to receive a Hypothesis Fund seed grant.