Research news

The contribution of researchers at the University of Ljubljana to the fight against COVID-19

Publish Date: 07.04.2020

Category: Interdisciplinary research, Our contribution to sustainable development goals

Sustainable development goals: 3 Good health and well-being (Indicators)

The Slovenian Research Agency (ARRS) has compiled an overview of research work that can contribute directly or indirectly to greater success in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. This research work includes programmes and projects being conducted by researchers from the University of Ljubljana.

The ARRS has asked the heads of research programmes and projects to report on the extent and manner in which their research is relevant in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, in treating the sick and in improving the responsiveness and capacities of the healthcare system. Below we present the research programmes and projects being conducted by researchers at the University of Ljubljana that might directly or indirectly help in this.


Relationships of parasitic existence

Head: Acad. Prof. Dr Tatjana Avšič Županc (Faculty of Medicine of the University of Ljubljana, Institute of Microbiology and Immunology)

Summary: The research programme involves: diagnostics for SARS CoV-2 (700 samples per day) and implementation of the latest molecular diagnostic procedures; an attempt to isolate the virus in cell cultures, which is a precondition for testing anti-viral agents and vaccines, and a study of the COVID-19 pathogenesis; obtaining complete virus genomes from Slovenian patients (NGS technology), which are important in the global database for determining genetic changes of the virus in space and time; in clinical samples of COVID-19 patients, the viral load is being monitored for the purpose of studying the viral pathogenesis and the success of treating COVID-19 patients; implementation of serological methods that are necessary for further epidemiological research and in-depth understanding of the pandemic.

Research in the field of public health

Head: Prof. Dr Igor Švab (Faculty of Medicine, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: Part of the programme, which is aimed at researching contagious diseases, is tied directly to resolving issues we are facing during the COVID-19 epidemic. Other parts of the programme are strongly linked to the challenges associated with COVID-19, especially the appropriate organisation of the healthcare service and family medicine, and partly also mental health. The programme in itself could not foresee the specific challenges Slovenia is now facing with the COVID-19 epidemic.

Mechanisms of protecting health

Head: Assoc. Prof. Dr Tjaša Griessler Bulc (Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: This programme involves researching the vesiculation of membranes, which is the fundamental mechanism for the formation of a virus (theoretically and experimentally), addressing the nutritional aspects of virus transfer, the interaction of membrane structures that include viruses with differing surfaces, and the effect of various substances containing the virus on their surroundings. Dealing with the issue of the pandemic also includes: researching activities that maintain the health of the population (e.g. researching the supply of vitamin D – formulation of guidelines), especially older people who are most at risk in the pandemic; maintaining physical readiness using advanced technologies (smart phones and apps) for monitoring the amount of physical activity or for preventing its decline below the critical threshold of 150 minutes a week in conditions of self-isolation and quarantine; drawing up instructions and physical activity logs. Part of the research is devoted to studying the preparation of self-cleaning surfaces using photocatalytic coatings based on TiO2. For the requirements of water purification they are researching the reactions of disinfecting water using various photocatalytic materials and disinfectants.

Functional genomics and biotechnology for health

Head: Prof. Dr Damjana Rozman (Faculty of Medicine, University of Ljubljana, Institute of Biochemistry) 

Summary: They are collaborating with clinical partners in Slovenia and Italy in the area of epidemiological studies between the concentration of blood cholesterol and the COVID-19 disease in patients with liver diseases, including liver cancer and other kinds of cancer, which they are researching within a programme group (stomach cancer, breast cancer, etc.). The first Chinese studies show that COVID-19 patients have reduced blood cholesterol. They are establishing procedures for sequencing virus RNA using Nanopore-minion technology.


Pharmaceutical Biotechnology: science for health

Head: Prof. Dr Janko Kos (Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: Within the programme group these researchers are formulating various inhibitors of cysteine peptidases such as the COVID-19 virus peptidase. The already registered antibiotic nitroxoline, which has been determined to be an effective inhibitor of cysteine peptidases, could be effective against the virus peptidase. To date it has been shown to be safe in the treatment of bacterial infections. The researchers have also developed various lectins that demonstrate anti-viral efficacy, systems for analysing RNA, for finding epitopes (including viral) using the phage dispay method and cellular and fauna models for studying the functioning of immune cells.

Organic chemistry: synthesis, structure and application

Head: Prof. Dr Janez Košmrlj (Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: They are studying the possibility of deactivating viruses (including COVID-19) using solvents of hydrogen peroxide in varying concentrations and in combination with peroxyacetic acid, and the possibility of decontaminating protective equipment with such solvents for reuse. Hydrogen peroxide has been shown to be effective against a wide range of viruses, bacteria, yeast and bacterial spores, by destroying their surface, cell walls and intracellular structure. For this reason they are also studying the possibility of decontaminating hazardous biological waste prior to destruction and decontaminating infected interior and exterior (public) surfaces with these agents that they are developing. Work is being conducted as part of the Creativity to Knowledge project “Antimicrobial agents based on active oxygen” in cooperation with Belinka Perkemija and the project RRI 2 (Ministry of Economic Development and Technology) “Process laboratory equipment”.

Transient two-phase flows

Head: Prof. Dr Božidar Šarler (Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: Micron-thick droplet jets are produced by micro-nozzles that allow the simultaneous flow of several different liquids and focusing gas. The jet carries randomly directed protein crystals into the field of interaction with X rays for a method known as serial femtosecond crystallography. In collaboration with a group headed by Dr Saša Bajt of Deutsches Elektronen Synchrotron (DESY), Hamburg, Germany, the project is developing numerical models and projecting new methods of creating the described micro-jets. DESY is planning the femtosecond crystallography of the COVID-19 virus, which will contribute to understanding the structure of the virus and development of vaccines. Appropriate micro-nozzles are vitally important in this.

Observing the Earth and geoinformatics

Head: Prof. Dr Krištof Oštir (Faculty of Civil and Geodetic Engineering, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: Analysis of the effect of the pandemic on air quality. Using Sentinel-5P satellite images the researchers are observing changes in air quality resulting from the reduction in transport, manufacturing and so forth, and are comparing them with local authority measures. They are also analysing the accessibility of selected services and determining the capacities of urban green spaces during the epidemic. Through spatial analysis they will study access to services and assess the number of people that can gather in selected urban parks while abiding by the recommendations of scientists and the measures in place. Within the programme group they can also as needed prepare various thematic cartographic displays that go beyond the core topic (depending on access to spatially defined data that are available).

Modelling and simulation in transport and maritime activities

Head: Prof. Dr Milan Batista, (Faculty of Maritime Studies and Transport, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: This involves modelling an assessment of the final status of the epidemic using various models and studying short-term and long-term impacts of the epidemic on maritime and other transport.

Electroporation in biology, biotechnology and medicine

Head: Prof. Dr Damijan Miklavčič (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, University of Ljubljana, Biocybernetics Laboratory)

Summary: Electroporation enables the introduction of pDNA into cells in vitro in vivo, meaning that it can be used in DNA vaccines. DNA vaccines for COVID-19 (and similar outbreaks of disease) could be successfully introduced into the organism and could protect the population from the spread of this virus.

Innovative manufacturing systems and processes

Head: Prof. Dr Niko Herakovič (Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Ljubljana, Laboratory for Handling, Assembly and Pneumatics)

Summary: Research is focused on the production of an efficient and simple ventilator.

Semiconductor electronics

Head: Prof. Dr Marko Topič (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, University of Ljubljana, Laboratory of Photovoltaics and Optoelectronics)

Summary: A study is currently being conducted on the feasibility and development of respiration aids for non-critical patients with breathing difficulties and their electronic and IoT support.


Social Contract in the 21st Century

Head: Prof. Dr Ksenija Vidmar Horvat (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana)

Summary: Within the programme group Social Contract in the 21st Century the following research is being conducted: research on the social effects of the current pandemic on the understanding of the concept of solidarity, transnationalism and the value of scientific information; researching a redefinition of the significance of an individual country and its relationship with the international community in facing the pandemic; media reporting on the pandemic; media consumption during the period of quarantine.

Slovenian public opinion

Head: Assoc. Prof. Mitja Hafner Fink (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Centre for Public Opinion Surveying and Mass Communication)

Summary: The online survey during the epidemic of adult inhabitants of Slovenia (a probability sample based on the population register) includes a set of questions covering the following content: facts regarding contact with the COVID-19 disease, feelings of threat and anxiety, difficulties during the epidemic, attitudes to measures associated with the epidemic, taking steps and changing everyday habits, the level of information, what is happening with social contacts and social support networks, views on the causes of the epidemic and regarding its future development. Key research objectives: ascertain the response of the public in a crisis situation and the mechanisms that balance these responses; determine whether and how such crisis impacts the views, values and behaviour of inhabitants and which groups are most affected.


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