Alliance-Recruited Researchers Doing COVID-19 Work In Arkansas

University of Arkansas medical researcher Dr. Morten Jensen has helped design a box for clinicians to while while treating patients who have COVID-19.
Credit University of Arkansas

Dr. Morten Jensen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, came to the University of Arkansas in 2015 with help from a $500,000 grant from the Arkansas Research Alliance. Now he’s helped design a clear acrylic box that can protect local clinicians when they intubate patients infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The box was modeled from one that was designed by a doctor in Taiwan that was featured in the New England Journal of Medicine. It encompasses the patient’s head and lets clinicians more safely provide care by placing their arms through two holes in the side. About 10 have been produced for the Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville.

Jensen said the collaboration began as a result of his giving an evening seminar for cardiac physicians at the hospital about three months ago. After the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Dr. Drew Rodgers, a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist, contacted him asking for help.

Jensen worked with the Fay Jones School of Architecture to produce the boxes using computer-aided design tools and quarter-inch-thick acrylic sheets made in Fort Smith. The boxes went through several iterations before being optimized regarding their size and the size of the holes. Each has about $100 in materials costs. He’s in conversations with other hospitals about their use.

A Denmark native, Jensen brought his wife, Dr. Hanna Jensen, a clinical assistant professor who is both a medical doctor and a Ph.D, to Arkansas. They like the state and are planning on staying.

Jensen said the Alliance’s support went beyond just financial.

“We both started with trying to find out what we can do in Arkansas and with Arkansas with our experience in cardiovascular research and medical devices in general,” he said. “The money certainly is important to start projects up, but I would say equally important and maybe in the long run even more important is the network that Arkansas Research Alliance supports the members, the Scholars and the Fellows, of the Alliance with.”

The Alliance is a public-private partnership that fosters collaboration between academia, industry and government. It includes five Arkansas research universities, the University of Arkansas – Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and Arkansas State University. It also includes the National Center for Toxicological Research, the only Food and Drug Administration center outside the Washington, D.C. area.

It was founded in April 2008 by Jerry Adams, who helped start the Arkansas-based data analyzing firm Acxiom in 1973, and is modeled after the much-larger Georgia Research Alliance.

Its board members include the chancellors of the five universities along with 16 CEOs and other business executives.

Adams said he wanted the universities to work together rather than maintain their traditional independence as signified by their mascots.

“One of the things I told the founding chancellors was, ‘My job is to kill the mascot in Arkansas.’ Because the mascot is not a collaborative tool,” Adams said. “And so what we’re trying to do is connect the dots between the highly collaborative, highly brilliant research leaders on these five campuses really agnostically.”

The Alliance annually receives $1.3 million from the state and a little less than $400,000 from its board members, along with nominal federal funding. Its ARA Academy funds ARA Scholars and ARA Fellows. ARA Scholars are targeted strategic recruits identified by the chancellors who receive $500,000. There are now 10, including Jensen.

The ARA Fellows Program provides $75,000 three-year grants for researchers who are already on campus. There are currently 20 of those.

Scholars and Fellows meet once a year for two days at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. This year’s will be in November and will focus on COVID-19.

Adams said ARA researchers are sought-after individuals with a market value. The Alliance vets both the scholars and the state-based programs because it doesn’t want to recruit a superstar to a dying or mediocre program.

Brian Barnhouse, ARA chief operating officer, said it’s difficult to determine the exact economic impact of recruiting a particular researcher, who brings to Arkansas databases, equipment, laboratories and staff members.

“People want to congregate and go where the brightest minds are in their field, and by attracting and sustaining and building those minds here in Arkansas, we’re becoming a more attractive place for certain kinds of science,” he said.

Jensen isn’t the only ARA-supported researcher doing COVID-19 work. Dr. Nitin Agarwal, an ARA Fellow and a distinguished professor of information science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is studying and combating misinformation about the disease.

As the director of the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies, or COSMOS, Agarwal and his team study issues ranging from elections to terrorism. Now it’s studying what Agarwal described on ARA’s website as an “infodemic” regarding the disease, including fake cures, medical equipment scams and anti-foreign attitudes.

COSMOS partnered with Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office to develop a myth-debunking website, cosmos.ualr.edu/covid-19, using new methodology along with work COSMOS has done for the U.S. military, the National Science Foundation and others.

The website serves as a “snopes.com” for COVID-19, and in fact it uses that site along with Politifact and others to debunk some of the 388 instances of misinformation it has uncovered. Those myths range from “Children ‘do not die’ of COVID-19” to “Wisconsin’s in-person election has caused a ‘surge’ in new coronavirus cases.” It also lists scams such as a mask that offers extra protection.

Other ARA researchers doing COVID-19 work include University of Arkansas data science professor Dr. Justin Zhan and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences professor Dr. David Ussery, both ARA Scholars. They along with UAMS professor Dr. Xuming Zhang are studying how to use a blockchain-based artificial intelligence system to predict genomic coronavirus trends. A blockchain is a growing list of records linked using cryptography.

Dr. Xiuzhen Huang, an ARA Fellow and Arkansas State professor of computer science, is partnering with St. Bernards hospital in Jonesboro to use artificial intelligence to detect COVID-19 damage in chest x-rays.