OU Health Brings Variety of Research Projects to Fight Against COVID-19
Published: Monday, January 25, 2021
About a year after COVID-19 arrived in the United States, vaccines and treatment innovations are providing light at the end of a long tunnel. OU Health has been a state and national leader in the rigorous research that has made such advances possible.
As an academic healthcare system, OU Health brings many resources to the battle against COVID-19, from laboratory research to clinical trials to public health tools like epidemiology and disease surveillance.
"None of the current vaccines or therapeutics would ever have come to fruition had it not been for scientists who understand the mechanisms of the disease or clinical trials that help us identify better ways to treat patients," said Jennifer Holter-Chakrabarty, M.D., a hematologist-oncologist at OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center and a campus leader in COVID-19 research.
"This pandemic has served as an example of how quickly you can respond to something like COVID-19 when you already have a model where scientists and physicians are working together," she added. "Because OU Health has researchers and clinicians across many specialties, we are able to contribute to the discoveries that are being made."
OU Health is maintaining a biorepository of samples from patients who have been treated for COVID-19, allowing researchers to access those samples as they conduct studies, including one that is testing the ability of a sugar-based molecule to suppress inflammation caused by the virus. Patient samples are also used to study the length and quality of immunity in people who have had COVID-19, compared with immunity provided by the vaccine.
In addition, OU Health is participating in two national registries of COVID-19 patients that allow researchers and clinicians to study treatments and outcomes over time, so they can better understand the virus on a national scale.
"Because this is a new virus never before seen in humans, we have pooled our resources throughout the United States to collect data and find themes," Holter-Chakrabarty said. "This is not uncommon in medicine. It allows us to identify how certain patient populations are experiencing the virus, in ways that we may not have observed within our individual healthcare institutions."
A related effort is Stephenson Cancer Center's participation in a National Cancer Institute clinical trial on the effects of COVID-19 in people being treated for cancer. Of the 793 national locations for the trial, Stephenson Cancer Center is the top enroller of patients.
"When you are diagnosed with cancer, that's frightening enough, but when you are diagnosed with COVID-19 in addition, we want to help you continue your cancer therapy, treat you for COVID-19, and look at the impact of both of them in this patient population," Holter-Chakrabarty said. "In this trial, we are collecting data for two years from patients with cancer who've had COVID-19. This will allow us to look for themes that emerge on a national scale and determine how we address them."
Stephenson Cancer Center has initiated a related trial for its own patients undergoing treatment for cancer. Trial participants receive an app on their phones that prompts them regularly to answer questions about any symptoms of COVID-19 they may have. If the app's algorithm determines they need to be tested for COVID-19, a test will be scheduled. Patients who test positive receive oxygen and pulse monitors that will help their healthcare providers determine if they can stay at home or if they need to be treated at the hospital.
Other studies involve monitoring patients with COVID-19 for thrombotic complications, particularly deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism and stroke.
"Because some of these conditions have been associated with COVID-19, our public health researchers are following incidence rates of patients getting a clot in their arm or leg, a clot that moves to their lungs, or having a stroke," Holter-Chakrabarty said. "Looking at surveillance data from various hospitals will allow us to see if any particular patient populations are more susceptible to these complications."
Drawing on its wide range of research expertise, OU Health is also conducting studies on topics as varied as improving sterilization techniques for personal protective equipment (PPE); using artificial intelligence and bioinformatics to predict where future COVID-19 outbreaks will occur; and assessing the effect of social isolation during the pandemic on the rate of child maltreatment cases.
In addition, OU Health researchers are participating in the development of potential future vaccines. Because of its longtime relationship with pharmaceutical company Novavax, including ongoing research for vaccines against the Respiratory Syncytial Virus and Ebola Virus, the OU Health Sciences Center is playing a role in the company's newly developed vaccine for COVID-19.
"We established biomedical research laboratory models to study the vaccine's ability to produce an immune response," said virologist James Papin, Ph.D., who is leading the study for the OU Health Sciences Center. "We're contributing to the data that allowed Novavax to successfully move into Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials and, now, transition to Phase 3 trials. Hopefully, that vaccine will also receive Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration so that it can be added to current vaccination options, increasing the supply of vaccines and effectively increasing vaccination rates."
OU Health's researchers and clinicians are also championing the current vaccines on the market, as well as the importance of high vaccination rates in order to stem the rise of the pandemic. Both vaccines use Messenger RNA (mRNA) to prompt the body to build antibodies against COVID-19. Although the vaccines were developed in record-breaking time, the concept of mRNA has been well-studied and used for years in various treatments, including cancer.
"Some people are concerned about the fast track of the vaccines, but they were developed using platforms that have been studied for a long time," Papin said. "That speaks to the importance of research - investigators had already done years of work showing that mRNA is safe and effective. That's why the vaccines could be developed so quickly. But we also need to take what we've learned and stay diligent. Infectious diseases are one of the greatest threats to humankind. Hopefully, we will turn the corner soon on the current pandemic, but if it happens again, we will have the data and understanding to develop therapeutics even faster than we are doing today."