How Willowbrook grad is working with 'a laser focus' to find COVID-19 treatment

  • Willowbrook graduate and Purdue University professor Rob Stahelin is focusing his research on creating treatments to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. "I just feel like this work is what I'm supposed to be doing," he said.

    Willowbrook graduate and Purdue University professor Rob Stahelin is focusing his research on creating treatments to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. "I just feel like this work is what I'm supposed to be doing," he said. Courtesy of Purdue University

  • Rob Stahelin

    Rob Stahelin

 
 
Updated 4/8/2020 7:20 AM

While Rob Stahelin studied chemistry as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, he read "The Hot Zone," a book about the dangers of Ebola, Marburg and other viruses.

It struck a chord that remains to this day.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Fifteen years later as a Retter Professor of Pharmacy at Purdue University, the Willowbrook High School graduate is on the cutting edge of researching treatments to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. He's spent the bulk of his professional career working on Ebola and other viruses, but that's been put on hold as all energy focuses on the current crisis.

"This one is quite surprising," said the 1994 Willowbrook graduate, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry. "Ebola is a lot harder to spread than this coronavirus. (COVID-19 is) a lot more prevalent and longer-lived outside the body."

Stahelin and his colleagues didn't begin research on COVID-19 until February, although as early as January he was intrigued by the data coming out of China. His team was busy working on Ebola when plans changed drastically.

"With these stay-at-home orders, universities are emptied out, so there's a lot more time, fortunately," he said. "We don't have seminars. We don't have meetings. There is more time, but there's a lot more urgency.

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"We want to get data collected and hopefully antibodies and drugs tested very quickly. You have a purpose and a laser focus of just trying to get things done and move it forward."

Stahelin credits his time at Willowbrook, and particularly teachers Larry Langellier and Chuck Gerut, for sparking an initial interest in science. After earning his undergraduate degree and doctorate at UIC, he worked at the University of Notre Dame before shifting to Purdue in 2017.

He's seen the devastation caused by viruses and aims at preventing their spread from within and outside the body. With COVID-19, Stahelin believes understanding and slowing the cell replication is key to preventing severe sickness and allowing immune systems to catch up and fight the virus.

"I definitely feel like we're behind, and that we need to move faster," Stahelin said. "You feel like you're underwater a lot trying to write more grants to get emergency funds. That's going to pay for all the supplies we need and the personnel time. It does feel quite nonstop."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Most of his work now is done through computer and mathematical modeling, but at some point he might be working with live cultures. That will require added safety precautions, or perhaps even a different lab, he said.

Stahelin estimates he works nearly 70 hours a week while balancing time with four children. Social distancing exists in the lab, where a team of dozens has been narrowed to about six.

The endgame for Stahelin and his colleagues is to find a drug or combination of drugs to reduce the spread of the virus and minimize or eliminate the symptoms. Not only will that prevent people from becoming severely ill or dying, but it'll also help alleviate stress on the health care system.

Despite all the research and testing that remains to be done, hope keeps Stahelin working at a feverish pace.

"I'm very hopeful," Stahelin said. "There will be a vaccine. There's just too much at stake. And in months we'll know more about some of the drugs people are testing in the U.S. and there might be much better hope for some of the drugs that already treat other diseases that might be effective against this virus.

"I just feel like this work is what I'm supposed to be doing," he said. "It's our job to provide a little bit of reassurance that science can solve problems. It's nice to be part of that."

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