In March, research leadership made an unprecedented decision. To help reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Brigham shut down the majority of its physical research labs. But that hasn’t stopped research teams from innovating. Labs that can do so are performing their work remotely, and labs that are performing essential functions, including COVID-19 research, are continuing their critical work on site. In addition, the Brigham and Mass General research communities have come together to launch the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation (MGBCCI).
Paul Anderson, MD, PhD, senior vice president of research and education and chief academic officer for the Brigham, recently answered questions about the laboratory shutdown, the launch of the Center for COVID Innovation and his hopes for the future.
PA: The biggest impact has been the laboratory shutdown. With the exception of research on COVID-19, or work required to maintain essential animals, cell lines or reagents, our research personnel have, like many others, been working from home. Reducing the number of people in the laboratories by about 90 percent helped reduce the spread of the virus—but it has also slowed down research progress.
In my own lab, several research fellows have set aside their experimental work. They have been keeping busy writing grants, research reports and reviews, as well as attending virtual scientific meetings. When they are able to re-enter the lab, they will be able to focus their attention on experiments, as much of their writing will be done.
The pandemic has also inspired our investigators to join in the search for needed solutions. One of the remarkable success stories is the Center for COVID Innovation that has recruited our investigators to find new devices, diagnostics, and digital solutions to problems created by the pandemic. Important deliverables include new ways to make or sterilize masks, new ways to obtain patient samples, new ways to measure COVID antibody titers and new apps to screen for infected employees.
What does the shutdown mean for Brigham research in other disease areas?
PA: There will be a delay in achieving the goals of other research programs. At the same time, our efforts to keep essential research components going will position us to jump right in when we re-open the labs. Like everyone in our society, our investigators are making essential sacrifices for the common good.
What role is the Brigham Research Institute (BRI) taking on during the outbreak?
PA: The BRI is playing a major role in the diagnostics section of the Center for COVID Innovation. BRI team members are serving as project managers and key personnel to operationalize several diagnostics initiatives. Areas that will benefit include PCR [molecular-based diagnostic testing] and serological testing for COVID-19.
What aspects of the research community’s response to the pandemic have surprised or impressed you?
PA: We knew that the Brigham is great in a crisis, but this response has exceeded my expectations. Hundreds of investigators joined our town hall launching the Center for COVID Innovation. Our investigators have stepped up to volunteer for Scientific Review Committees to vet proposals for clinical studies and approve therapeutic trials related to COVID-19. We have also seen extraordinary cooperation between the clinical and research faculty to advance our understanding of the disease so that we can flatten the curve and get past this crisis.
Can you share a specific example of the community’s ability to respond quickly in a crisis?
PA: I have seen clinical trials that normally would have take several months to get through the Internal Review Board and Clinical Trials Office approved in 1-2 days. The urgency of the problem forced us to deconstruct the process to make it more efficient.
Do you think this crisis will have long-term effects on the way research is done?
PA: There are some silver linings to the pandemic cloud. We have learned that there is a lot we can do without coming into the laboratory or hospital. We have learned to communicate remotely in a way we never could have imagined. We have discovered new ways to evaluate clinical trials, to consent patients for research activities, and to collect samples for research that will speed the transition from discovery to therapy. The urgency of COVID-19 has pushed us to discover faster ways to vet research protocols without sacrificing patient or staff safety. I think this experience will forever change, in a positive way, the way we do research.