South End Researcher Helping Team Look for Unique Treatments, Vaccines

When a new N95 surgical mask decontamination unit came rolling into Boston from the federal government, all of the paperwork and studies accompanying it said it worked as advertised, but for medical professionals, they turned to researchers in the National Emerging and Infectious Disease Lab (NEIDL) to make sure it was absolutely true.

In such matters when health care professionals are dealing with the COVID-19, there is no room for error.

Southender Anna Honko was one of the researchers who worked on the team to test out the new machine.

“They received this new decontamination unit and our staff was called to verify it with tests,” she said. “We took supplies of different N95 masks and contaminated them with the virus and then ran them through the machine to see if it did kill the virus on the mask and it did. I think it was great to have that confidence in the product from someone here in Boston. All of the paperwork said it decontaminated them, but I think it’s better when you have scientists here doing the tests and understanding it.”

It’s just one of the many things Honko is doing at the NEIDL, where she has worked for the last few years while living at the Girard on Harrison Avenue – walking distance from her work. Honko has been involved in immunology and virology for many years, and came to the South End specifically to work at the NEIDL. She began in her field because she wanted to help underprivileged populations and started researching tuberculosis and malaria. Soon, a mentor suggested she work on infectious diseases and she was able to do field work in Africa and around the work to help solve crises surrounding viruses.

“I’ve often thought it so fascinating that these tiny things with so few genes can wreak such havoc on us, who have so many genes,” she said.

At the moment, Honko is on a team that is working in conjunction with Dr. Robert Davey, who is searching for new treatments for COVID-19. Honko is working with about 20 collaborators across the country who have unique or different proposals for treatments and vaccines to address COVID-19.

“While Dr. Davey is focusing on small molecules, we’re focusing on the other therapeutics and drugs that might not be common – things that aren’t small molecules,” she said. “We’ve been testing unique drugs and screening to see how it might be effective in restricting the virus…We are planning on doing testing on different vaccines and therapies to see what kind of immune responses we get and if they are effective.”

Part of the work is taking in therapies and vaccines that are being worked on by many of their collaborators around the world and in Boston. Using the COVID-19 samples they have in the NEIDL, they can test how the therapies and vaccines work, or what parts work and what parts don’t. The goal is to have real-time feedback from the testing provided to the collaborators so they can home in on a potential cure or treatment.

“We want to see if there are particular things about a vaccine that are working and if we can understand why,” she said. “We’ll look to see if there is a particular feature about a vaccine that makes it a good vaccine or a less effective vaccine…It’s been a race. Everyone is rallying to do whatever we can. It seems like a gimmick to say we’re all working 150 percent, but really we are doing anything we can to help.”

That has been invigorating, and while there is a lot of pain and suffering associated with COVID-19, the race to help find treatment and vaccines has united the scientific community, she said. It is why they all became scientists – for this particular moment in time – and Honko said people are working so well together.

“Boston is such a great city with universities and great people,” she said. “I haven’t seen anything like this before. I was on a conference call with 10 universities today and they were talking and sharing things they learned. I think it’s brought a lot of people together for the good of science and gets these products out there…It is invigorating and it’s why you get into science.”

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