“I was blown away,” said Asst. Prof. Juan Mendoza, recalling when he first heard the news that an 11-year-old boy planned to donate to his lab group’s COVID-19 research. “I was deeply touched by this unexpected and unsolicited donation.”
The young donor, Noah Polansky, raised $250 selling cookies to support the Mendoza group at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago.
After seeing news coverage of COVID-19 and hearing about people raising money to fight the disease, Polansky decided to create a fundraiser. “I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. He elected to support research at UChicago because his mother works there, and he wanted his donation to have a personal connection.
Once he reviewed the COVID-19 research projects underway at Pritzker Molecular Engineering, he settled on Mendoza’s lab group, which is working to engineer more potent antibodies to prevent or treat COVID-19 infections.
“I chose the Mendoza group because I thought what they were doing was really interesting—making certain antibodies stronger to help fight off COVID-19 in the case that someone gets it, said Polansky. “I thought it was cool how he and his team use engineering on a molecular level.”
Fighting COVID-19 with antibodies
After the UChicago campus shut down, Mendoza began thinking about a way to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus. “I did not want to sit back and hope others would find solutions to the deadly pandemic,” he said. “After discussing the project and the risks with my lab, we went to work trying to make our contribution to finding a solution.”
Antibodies can block viruses from infecting cells and spreading. But the human body needs about a week after initial infection to produce its own antibodies, and some people may be unable to produce effective antibodies. The Mendoza group is working to engineer potent antibodies to use as a COVID-19 treatment.
The research in the lab is two-fold. First, to address the immediate need for COVID-19 treatments, the researchers are using protein engineering platforms to create 10 trillion antibodies and find good candidates. As a longer-term project, the group is making broad-acting immune proteins called cytokines, which could treat COVID-19 as well as respiratory viral infections that don't exist yet.
Resulting treatments could minimize the severity and fatality of the disease, or even prevent COVID-19 infections. “We hope our work makes an impact in some way like finding an effective drug,” he said. “But more importantly, we all need to do our part with this serious and life-threatening disease.”
‘I felt so much hope’
Once Polansky decided to get involved in supporting COVID-19 research, he made a fundraising plan and executed it. “I chose to bake cookies because I have always loved baking,” he said. “Also, I had just mastered the cookie recipes from the cookbook I got for the holidays.”
After creating a flyer and order form, he began telling neighbors about the fundraiser. Every step of the way, Polansky made sure to follow safety guidelines. He asked people to drop order sheets in his mailbox, and then he made porch deliveries while wearing a mask and gloves and keeping his distance. He collected funds using mobile payment apps.
Polansky’s mother, Katie Dealy, was struck by her son’s clear vision. “He was undeterred by any obstacles,” said Dealy, chief operating officer of TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at UChicago. Her son is fascinated by science, she said, and she hopes he will see Mendoza as a role model for using science for social good.
Mendoza was deeply affected by the donation and wanted to personally thank Polansky, so he set up a Zoom call with him. He explained his group’s research and what the gift meant to him, and also invited Polansky to visit his lab once it is safe to return to campus. “I felt so much hope when meeting Noah,” Mendoza said. “At such a young age, to show an interest in society and to find a way to contribute is inspiring.”
“It was amazing to be able to talk to Dr. Mendoza,” Polansky said. “What he is doing is fascinating, and I hope that he and his lab will be able to finish their research and create a way to combat COVID-19.”
—This story was first published by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.