Tyler Ripperger '17, Lending Hand in COVID-19 Studies

Tyler Ripperger '17, Lending Hand in COVID-19 Studies

Thursday, April 2, 2020

In one way or another, nearly every person in the United States has been impacted by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Midland University alum Tyler Ripperger is discovering ways he can have his own impact on the virus.

Ripperger, ‘17, is one of several researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine working on tests to detect COVID-19 antibodies in people without symptoms. Antibodies are proteins created by the immune system to fight infections and viruses. In his third year in the Department of Immunobiology, Ripperger is one of nearly a dozen researchers who have ramped up efforts over the past couple of weeks to track new ways to potentially attack the virus.

“My perspective has probably been different from others in that this is an opportunity for us to do some work that can be relevant immediately,” Ripperger said. “That has been very motivating and exciting.”

The research groups are headed by UA immunologists Deepta Bhattacharya and Janko Nikolich. Their goal is to determine which antibodies are useful, then have those mass-produced and injected into patients fighting COVID-19. Those antibodies could potentially boost their immune system. Long-term, those antibodies could also be turned into some form of a vaccine.

Doing research on a variety of viruses has been common practice for Ripperger and his lab mates, but it wasn’t until recently, when COVID-19 began to gain momentum, that the group shifted their efforts. “We started to commit our research efforts to COVID-19 about two weeks ago,” Ripperger said. “When we were talking about the work we had been doing, we thought we might be able to apply it to COVID-19. What this allows us to do is take serum samples over time and see how people are responding. We are working to figure out why this virus has strong effects on some, particularly the elderly, while others who have tested positive are showing mild to no symptoms.”

As work continues to find a potential vaccine, Ripperger is hopeful the work they are conducting will present them with some positive outcomes. “We can take the antibodies from someone who has fought off the virus and introduce that to someone else,” he said. “In the absence of a vaccine, this is a strategy you can use.”

Each test requires the lab to grow cells, a process that can take about a week, so as of now, they are limited in how many people they can test. Currently, they are able to test about a dozen samples each week. “We’re at a small sample size right now as we continue to iron out the conditions for screening,” he said. “Once we nail that down, we’ll be able to pass these on to more clinical labs.”

Ripperger, a native of Hastings, Nebraska, graduated from Midland with a B.S. in Biology and was also a member of the Warriors basketball team. His path to working in a research lab wasn’t in his original plans when he arrived at Midland. “I started in pre-veterinarian work, with the idea to be a vet for large animals,” he said. “Then I worked a couple of summers doing cancer research at the (Nebraska) Medical Center and became interested in the immune system, which seemed pretty awesome to me. I started to learn more about viruses and I came to grad school knowing this is what I wanted to work on.”

In his third year of the program, Ripperger estimates he has another “two-and-a-half to three years” left before earning his Ph.D. in biology research. “Right now, I envision myself earning my Ph.D. and finding a position working for a government or academic research lab,” he said. “I want to be somewhere that would be globally relevant.”

Like many others across the country, Ripperger has seen his daily routine upended because of COVID-19. He said the campus is “about halfway shut down” and classes have transitioned to online. As team members continue to practice their own form of social distancing, while still getting work done, Ripperger said the focus has shifted to attacking the virus. “We’ve been told by the government they don’t want us working on anything that isn’t related to COVID-19, so it’s been all hands on deck,” he said. “The weirdest thing to me is driving around and seeing almost everything shut down. But without a vaccine, we just don’t have a good way to attack this right now. The only reasonable thing we can do is work on keeping people apart from each other.”