COVID-19 Response at The Hormel Institute

The Hormel Institute has been adapting to many changes since the COVID-19 “stay at home” order was mandated in Minnesota. As part of University of Minnesota, The Hormel Institute follows guidelines set forth by the Board of Regents, President Joan Gabel, Vice President for Research Dr. Chris Cramer, and a COVID-19 task force team who follow State of MN mandates.

Despite the building being closed to all but essential research projects and employees, progress in the quest to find answers to cancer and disease at The Hormel Institute continues albeit in creative ways.

Read the whole media release HERE.

Hear from our faculty and staff on how they have transitioned their work due to COVID-19:

CANCER RESEARCH – Dr. Ann M. Bode – Dr. Amer AlamDr. George AslanidiDr. Ilana ChefetzDr. Rafael Contreras-GalindoDr. Wioletta CzajaDr. Jarrod FrenchDr. Sergio GradiloneDr. Luke HoeppnerDr. Bin LiuDr. Rebecca MorrisDr. James Robinson

ADMINISTRATION – Minda AndersonBecky EarlTara Scott

BUILDING OPERATIONS & MAINTENANCE – Mark Severtson

DEVELOPMENT & PUBLIC RELATIONS – Gail Dennison

INSTRUMENT CORE – Todd Schuster

LIBRARY – Andy Lucas

RESEARCH SUPPORT GROUP – Kim Klukas

RESEARCH SUPPORT SERVICES – Jeff McDonald, Ph.D.

 


CANCER RESEARCH


Ann Bode - The Hormel Institute

“At The Hormel Institute UMN, we are continuing our cancer research under the guidance and mandates required for our health and safety as guided by our state and by University of Minnesota.

I appreciate how our university, faculty, researchers, and support staff have met these challenges – working remotely when possible, developing new work schedules and plans to minimize threat to essential workers and creatively meeting responsibilities to further our mission.”

Dr. Ann M. Bode, Interim Executive Director


“The Alam lab seeks to determine what proteins, molecular machines at the heart of cellular functioning, look like in three dimensions using the HI’s state of the art Titan Krios cryo electron microscope. This provides detailed information that we can use to understand how these proteins carry out their function and how problems with their normal functioning impacts human health. These structures are also an invaluable starting step for structure based drug development to combat disease. In the last year, the Alam lab, which comprises a senior scientist, postdoctoral researcher, and technician, has gathered significant preliminary data that, during this challenging time of reduced operations, we are rapidly processing.”

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“The first major publication from our lab is under preparation, showcasing exciting results on a novel protein involved in Alzheimer’s Disease progression, collected exclusively on the HI Titan Krios microscope. We continue to generate cryo-EM data using samples stored in our pipeline. Data collection is monitored remotely and data processing is also carried out off site utilizing the HI’s high powered IT infrastructure and expertise of our new IT manager, Dr. Jeffrey McDonald. We greatly appreciate efforts to keep this and other essential infrastructure in working order. This has allowed us to follow the strict social distancing and ‘work from home’ guidelines, while still maximizing the use of this high value equipment, and to maintain our research output. This is essential for not only for future scientific breakthroughs, but also for procuring external funding for the continued success of our very young research program.

The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the importance of sound scientific research and what the real world impact of its disruption can be. The Alam lab is looking forward to a resumption of normal research activities and has a plan of action at hand to allow for a seamless transition back when appropriate.”

Dr. Amer Alam, Structural Biology of Membrane Transport


Cancer Stem Cells & Necroptosis lab meeting.

 

Dr. Ilana Chefetz, head of the Cancer Stem Cells and Necroptosis lab, is working on a R21 grant as part of NCl provocative question RFA and letters of intent for ovarian cancer DOD grants, as well as reviewing a paper for the journal Cell Death and Disease. Dr. Chefetz gave a virtual seminar as part of Mayo Clinic’s Gynecology seminar series in March and gave another virtual seminar as part of UMN Stem Cell Institute’s seminar series in April.

 


“I have been working on a paper with the co-authors that we will submit soon to the Journal New England journal of Medicine. We have analyzed data and drafted the manuscript and will be submitted in the next few weeks. This paper is about centromere defects seen in Scleroderma patients and was conducted with investigators in the University of Michigan and our lab in the HI. I am the senior and corresponding author of the study.

I am currently preparing a grant submission to the NCI, an R21 mechanism.”

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“I was granted an Innovative Research Award from the Rheumatology Research Foundation starting July. The foundation is supporting innovative research ideas is essential to better understanding rheumatic diseases, their causes and the best way to treat them. The Innovative Research Award provides independent investigators with the funding they need to pursue ideas that could lead to important breakthroughs in discovering new treatments and, one day, a cure. https://www.rheumresearch.org/innovative-research-award

I am a Co-PI in this study and will work in parallel with investigators of the University of Michigan . The grant is $400,000 for the next two years. We will investigate how centromere defects impact the growth of fibroblasts in Scleroderma. The grant “Centromeres in Scleroderma” will examine whether epigenetic defects drive the scleroderma phenotype in fibroblast and determine whether Chromosome Instability-induced by Centromere Mutations drives fibrosis. I will work in engineering centromeres mutations seen in patients with scleroderma understanding if these mutations make unstable chromosomes and lead to the expression of proteins that make the fibrotic tissue seen in Scleroderma. We predict that cells with centromere defects will show increased cell proliferation, resistance to apoptosis, and more invasiveness, and will differentiate into pro-fibrotic fibroblasts and/or myofibroblasts. “

Dr. Rafael Contreras-Galindo, Genome Instability and Chromosome Biology


Dr. Czaja's cat helping her work.

 

“This is truly unprecedented and scary time that impacts all of us at personal and professional level. While my laboratory has been closed for the time being, I stay very busy working on grant applications, research papers and careful design of the future experiments addressing important role of DNA repair in genome stability and cancer. For me, personally, this is also time for reflection, revision of priorities, and focusing on things that matter. I also feel deep appreciation that we live in modern times, where science has a tremendous power to save lives and give hope.”

Dr. Wioletta Czaja, DNA Repair and Genome Stability

 


“As per UMN policy, all of our staff are telecommuting. For us, this takes predominantly two forms. We are currently analyzing the data that we recently collected using the Cryo-EM, in part by remotely making use of the institute’s significant computing resources. Data analysis, in this case, can take weeks to complete so we are making good use of this time. In addition, my group is investing a lot of time in reviewing the literature and distilling out the relevant material. This includes, for one of our projects, trying to understand how we can therapeutically enhance the body’s own immune response to infections. While we are not currently working on anything directly related to the novel coronavirus, we anticipate that (in the not-too-distant future) we’ll be able to develop just such an immuno-enhancing therapy that could help protect people from infections, including novel viral pathogens.”

Dr. Jarrod French, Nucleotide Metabolism and Drug Discovery


Sergio Gradilone - The Hormel Institute

“The UMN as many other Institutions in the country have asked to minimize research non related to COVID-19. Therefore, to minimize the spread of the virus, we have implemented minimal staffing and our people is working from home analyzing data and writing papers and grant applications. Our lab is under minimal operation as requested in order to protect our staff and all Minnesotans maximizing social distancing. We continue with our lab meetings via videoconference, but not new bench work will be started until further notice.”

Dr. Sergio Gradilone, Cancer Cell Biology and Translational Research


Cancer Biology Zoom lab meeting

Cancer Biology lab Zoom meeting.

 

“The non-essential daily operations of research labs have been indefinitely suspended to protect the safety of our staff, their families and all Minnesotans. We’re working from home, using technology to remotely connect for group discussions, preparing manuscripts to report research findings, writing grant proposals, reading scientific literature to generate novel ideas, communicating with collaborators, and analyzing data, including interpreting computational biology results. While its challenging to temporarily halt new progress, we applaud leadership for making this socially responsible decision.”

Dr. Luke Hoeppner, Cancer Biology

 


“We are trying to understand the replication/transcription mechanism in COVID-19 virus by determining CryoEM structures of the relevant protein complexes, which will benefit our understanding of how this virus replicates/transcribes RNA and the development of effective antiviral drugs. This will help with the development of effective antiviral drugs and with our preliminary data we hope to develop a publication.”

Dr. Bin Liu, Transcription and Gene Regulation


Dr. Rebecca Morris home office

Dr. Rebecca Morris’s home office.

“I finished reading path slides for one of our projects and summarized the data to be sent to one of our collaborators. I have another slide set to read next week. I wish my small clinical microscope that I have been using at home had fluorescence capabilities because I am behind in reading several of those projects. However, they will have to wait until I can go back to the lab.

I have been researching artificial intelligence and deep learning as applied to pathology for us to use for our bone marrow transplant project. I have found that Zeiss has developed software that we can adapted for this purpose. I am hoping to discuss with Jeff early next week. He has agreed to work with us on one of the specific aims for our PTTP project. We already have a really great path slide set for this project that can be used for “training” and we have other slides that we can use to “test”. We will use this approach to predict which benign skin papillomas are at risk for becoming malignant, and the AI/DL approach will assist us in quantifying the number and distribution of bone marrow derived cells in the low- and high- risk papillomas.”

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“I have a zoom meeting this afternoon with Wolfe Molitor from the UMN Foundation to discuss our possible submission of a proposal to the Keck Foundation. They apparently like to fund “great ideas that are too risky for NIH”. My recent summary statements attest to this!!

Steph, Nissi, and I are analyzing Nanostring data which is one of the final steps in our RNA Sequencing project on hair follicle stem- and nonstem- cells. Nissi, my Ph.D. student at the UMNTC is now writing the papers for her dissertation that she hope to finish by the end of June. We also applied this technology to samples of human blood and bone marrow and obtained quite nice evidence for cytokeratin expression in both sample sets.

Steph has completed our “essential” cell culture experiment that had been ongoing for several weeks. She continues to maintain our small but high risk mouse colony.

My mathematician friend and collaborator, Derek Gordon, has almost finished his book on “heterogeneity in biological samples” where he has used a fair amount of my published data. Next week, I will proofread my parts of his book for accuracy.

My lab and a few “friends” have a brief zoom coffee break each morning to discuss our progress on these projects and for mutual encouragement.

In the meantime, I am revising an R01 for resubmission in June.

During the past week, I have been working on two grants including the Keck Foundation concept page.”

Dr. Rebecca Morris, Stem Cells and Cancer


James Robinson - The Hormel Institute

 

“Dr. Robinson’s Lab is maintaining long term animal experiments. While he is assisting and advising on reducing the regulatory burden of COVID-19 testing and research throughout Minnesota, he is also developing a new model system to study COIVD-19 safely at the Hormel Institute.”

Dr. James Robinson, Cell Signaling and Tumorigenesis


ADMINISTRATION


“It is an intense time for Human Resources as important changes that affect the health, safety, research and operations of The Hormel Institute faculty and staff must be communicated and managed.  HR has the responsibility of ensuring HI faculty and staff adhere to UMN mandates and guidelines and the situation and landscape changes nearly daily.

Employees that are considered essential and are Civil Service or Labor Represented are being given $2/hour extra.

80 hours of University Emergency Paid Leave is being given to all employees that have or will be affected by COVID-19 or a family member, etc.”

Minda Anderson, Human Resources Manager


Becky Earl

“Though the pandemic may slow research, research does not stop! Researchers are actively applying for grant funding through the stay-at-home policy. Continuous communication is taking place between myself and the researchers to ensure the best quality of grant proposals are being submitted. It is our goal to continue research as normal as possible, when life becomes normal!

Through the effortless work of our community, we are still able to provide Paint the Town Pink funding and Prostate Cancer funding this year. Researchers have a very special opportunity to apply for internal grant funding through these wonderful events. New recipients will be awarded for these awards this coming July. The Potach Foundation and Eagles Telethon awards are still in full swing as recipients received those awards at the end of 2019.

We are looking forward to great things ahead!”

Becky Earl, Grants & Contracts


Tara Scott

 

“In the accounting department we are all able to work from home. Now that most vendors are not shipping and we are only allowing for essential experiments to continue, we have come up with creative ideas of work that can be completed in the purchasing department. Our department will be helping other departments with work activities that involve work our purchasers are able to do from their homes.”

Tara Scott, Finance


BUILDING OPERATIONS & MAINTENANCE


Mark Severtson

“My mechanics and custodians are alternating days on a rotation so that they are not coming into contact with each other.  My mechanics are doing the routine mechanical checks and testing on our boilers, cage washers, auto claves, heat pumps, air compressors, vacuum pumps, RO/DI water systems, and HVAC systems to keep all running as efficiently as we can.  My custodians continue to clean and disinfect all surfaces and areas that are used by the limited amount of staff that we have working here at HI.  They are also taking the time to do special projects, (floor care and organizing to name a couple) in between cleaning the facility.  All of my staff on watching the researchers equipment as well to make sure that they may catch anything that may fail?  They are also keeping our Electron Microscope stocked with Liquid Nitrogen to run and all storage of cells (doers) filled as well with liquid nitrogen.   When my employees are at home they are researching new techniques, equipment, and looking at online seminars or informative information to help make the job more efficient.  We continue to support our customers to help them out in any way that we can while distancing ourselves from each other.”

Mark Severtson, Building Systems Manager


DEVELOPMENT & PUBLIC RELATIONS


Gail Dennison Zoom meeting

Gail Dennison during a Zoom meeting.

“The Development and Public Relations department has been able to continue the majority of our work remotely. While social distancing has meant canceling some of our tours and events, we have found new ways to reach out to our community and show our support during this challenging time. One of the exciting ways we have been able to give back is to connect The Hormel Institute’s scientists with teachers and students in Austin through short educational videos the scientists created.

Brenna Gerhart

Brenna and Lorelei Gerhart

Our department continues to work to share the story of The Hormel Institute and win support for The Hormel Institute’s research so people live longer, healthier lives, uninterrupted by cancer.

A few ways the D/PR department and The Hormel Institute has been involved, in close collaboration with HI scientists, medical care personnel, businesses and colleagues from across the community, include:

  • Connecting The Hormel Institute cancer research donors to help combat COVID-19 in the medical community. For example helping Absolute Energy, a major ethanol plant, partner with Mayo Clinic to provide hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer. Assisting another company associated with The Hormel Institute, Kapra Cosmetics, which also donated hand sanitizer to Mayo Clinic.
  • Providing Austin Public Schools (and any other interested schools) with teaching videos produced by The Hormel Institute’s scientists about science and research for students now studying remotely. The videos are appropriate for each grade level from pre-school/K through high school;
  • Supporting area business with orders/purchases that are standard but would be more timely during COVID-19 when their businesses may be economically compromised”

Gail Dennison, Director of Development and Public Relations

 

 


INSTRUMENT CORE


Todd Schuster

“Most of the instruments in the Hormel Institute’s Shared Instrument Core area have been shut down and will be started up when the current restrictions are lifted. I am coming in about once a week to assist users with experiments that they are trying to finish up. I will spend some of my work at home time learning as much as I can about the new confocal microscope that will arrive at the Institute during the first part of May. Some of my time will be used to look at our existing analysis software to discover new uses that would be applicable to what researchers are doing. I will spend some time looking at our existing instrument protocols and see if they need updating. Additionally, I will spend some time researching new developments in flow cytometry and microscopy to see if they can be applied to the research we do at the Hormel Institute.”

Todd Schuster, Core Facility Manager

 


LIBRARY


“The pandemic resulted in requests for physical materials (i.e. print books, DVDs, etc.), and scans from our print collection at the Institute Library and the Libraries of the U of M Twin Cities and around the country to be put on hold. However, a silver lining was the Institute gained greater access to many of the holdings of the U of M LIbraries than it ever had. Twelve years ago a group of research libraries began building a collection of digital copies of their print books and other library materials. The University of Minnesota was the second largest contributor by number of volumes to this collection, that now numbers 17 million titles. The collection is called the HathiTrust (“Hathi” being Hindi for elephant, known for their long memory). Digital versions of out-of-copyright works were made available for viewing to anyone while those in-copyright were not, until now.”

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The closure of libraries due to the pandemic spurred the HathiTrust to simulate access to print books for the academic community. University of Minnesota students, faculty or staff can view digital copies of only the books in the HathiTrust collection that the U of M Libraries holds a physical copy of, and each digital copy of a book can only be used by one person at a time, just as would be the case with a print book. Hormel Institute researchers are journal-centric in their literature research, however given that all works in the HathiTrust collection are searchable by keyword, they may find by searching on their topics of interest in this collection original insights that can be used in the introduction section of papers they write.

In addition to exploring this new access to the U of M Libraries collections, I have shifted to demonstrating bibliographic software to labs via teleconferencing, updating the employee directory remotely, and adapting new employee orientation to a virtual environment.”

Andy Lucas, Librarian


RESEARCH SUPPORT GROUP


Kim Klukas

 

“My team is continuing to help researchers finish studies that are in process while keeping future studies viable. We are also working on updating facility policies and procedures relevant to the work we do in our area. We have scaled back our full team to groups of two to maintain social distancing while working on site. We are looking forward to welcoming everyone back to the Institute and continuing oncology research.”

 – Kim Klukas, Research Support Group Manager


RESEARCH SUPPORT SERVICES


Dr. Jeff McDonald

“As an IT professional with a robust and complicated set of services that users expect to be maintained, working from home is nothing new for me. Most users expect 100% uptime all the time and in order to deliver something close to that expectation, you have to have remote controls for access. Most IT professionals generate effective and secure ways to do their job remotely. In the age of cloud this has become easier as we now have ubiquitous access to our data and services. However, like most centers, we have not fully embraced the cloud for security and privacy concerns so key constituents need to be able to access shared infrastructure. For this, we have provided virtual private networks to allow secure access to the shared infrastructure. The past few weeks I have been working with users to help implement/setup/connect these services.”

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“Fortunately, we also have zoom setup which makes it possible to remotely collaborate with others. The technology still has problems on occasion and I think most find it somewhat awkward (especially with kids home at the same time!).

The hardest part of the COVID stay-at-home order is finding ways to keep the kids occupied (other than screen time).   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I’m bored’. Each time I hear this, I suggested counting the number of kernels in a pound of rice! You have to do this with the elementary kids because the older ones will just google it!”

Jeff McDonald, Ph.D., Director of Information Technology


Examples of educational videos Institute researchers recorded for local students:

Dr. George Aslanidi, head of the Molecular Bioengineering & Cancer Vaccine lab

Dr. Luke Hoeppner, head of the Cancer Biology lab

Seth Richard, Cancer Cell Biology & Translational Research lab

Stephanie Holtorf, Stem Cells and Cancer lab