As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, new questions are emerging for every research community. For Sophia Koo, MD, an infectious disease specialist who cares for immunocompromised patients, this means understanding the implications of COVID-19 for this at-risk patient population.
“People who have cancer, have received stem cell transplants or organ transplants, and people with autoimmune diseases may be taking drugs that blunt their immune response and typically already have higher levels of inflammatory markers at baseline than the general population,” said Koo. “It’s unknown whether they may have a difference in clinical presentation and outcomes if they are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Koo’s project to study the impact and outcome of COVID-19 for immunocompromised patients was recently named one of the 62 recipients of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR) Request for Proposals (RFP) Awards. MassCPR funding was granted to nine other COVID-related research projects involving Brigham investigators. Five additional research projects have been funded through philanthropic gifts to the hospital. And each month, new funding through industry collaborations and federal grants is making possible basic, clinical and translational research projects to tackle the pandemic from many angles. Funding is fueling the Brigham research community’s search to understand the implications of COVID-19 for patients at the hospital and around the world.
In May, a multi-institutional initiative convened by Harvard Medical School known as the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR) announced over $16.5 million in funding to support high-impact research projects.
The consortium is a collaborative effort that includes scientists and clinicians from Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts and local biomedical research institutes, biotech companies and academic medical centers, including the Brigham. In mid-March, MassCPR announced an urgent call for proposals for projects that address key aspects of COVID-19. Within a week, the consortium received 448 applications from investigators across the Commonwealth.
Projects were selected for their potential to influence clinical outcomes in patients and populations within the next 12 months. The projects span the consortium’s scientific and clinical focus areas: the development of vaccines, therapies and diagnostic tools, clinical management, epidemiology and understanding how SARS-CoV-2 causes disease.
Jonathan Li, MD, an infectious disease specialist, is part of a team that received funding for their project, “COVID-19 sample procurement, processing, storage, and sharing/distribution.”
“This work represents a team effort,” said Li, who along with colleagues across the Brigham and Mass General, is working to collect and process multiple kinds of samples from patients with COVID-19 to create a resource for researchers. “Funding from MassCPR, as well as from our institutions and private philanthropy, has helped catalyze this endeavor.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, more than 9,000 donors have stepped forward to support the Brigham and its response to the pandemic through gifts large and small, raising more than $21 million.
“We are grateful to our Brigham community members near and far for their outpouring of support, concern, and action during this most trying time,” said Susan Rapple, senior vice president and chief development officer. “The funds raised are helping the Brigham respond to many facets of this ongoing crisis while also safely restoring our hospital operations to a new normal.”
Gifts to the Brigham COVID-19 Response Fund are being used to support a continuum of care for patients, provide continued protection and resources to frontline staff, support the most vulnerable members of our neighboring communities, and accelerate research that will lead to new treatments and therapies. The fund’s allocation to research has enabled the Brigham to support five additional research projects related to COVID-19. These projects include efforts to develop a COVID biorepository, explore the pathology of the virus in patients, predict the severity of cardiovascular complications, explore risk factors among older adults, and define the cardiovascular effects of COVID-19.
Samia Mora, MD, of the Divisions of Preventive and Cardiovascular Medicine, is conducting a project in collaboration with Olga Demler, PhD, an associate biostatistician, and Hesam Dashti, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow, on predicting the severity of COVID-19 disease based on an analysis of electronic health care record data from Mass General Brigham. In particular, the team is looking at whether prior or current medication use may influence patient outcomes.
“The severity of the disease is highly variable and being able to identify patients who have a high chance of a bad outcome is critical,” said Mora. “This generous funding will help us jumpstart our efforts to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to build a platform for predicting risk that can be integrated into the EHR to aid clinicians and guide treatment decisions.”
Additional Donor-Supported Efforts
Among other priorities, these gifts are being used to accelerate the Brigham’s testing capabilities, including serology tests that measure the presence of antibodies typically associated with immunity. Under the direction of David Walt, MD, co-leader of the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation, this serology testing is critical in determining if an individual has immunity to COVID-19 and can safely return to work and other normal activities. Thanks to generous funding, Walt and his team were able to develop a test that is 1,000 times more sensitive than any other antibody test.
Federal, Industry and Foundation Funding
Brigham investigators are continuing to apply for and receive funding support for COVID-19 through grants from government and industry. These include clinical research studies for a variety of potential therapies, including antiviral medications, the immunostimulant BCG, immunosuppressive medications and monoclonal antibodies.
“Thanks to incredible ingenuity, a strong foundation and a breadth of core resources, our research community remains remarkably successful at putting forward award-winning research proposals and conducting first-class research,” said Paul Anderson, MD, PhD, senior vice president of research and education. “As our research enterprise ramps up, these awards will become more important than ever, not only for individual research labs, but also for the larger world as we continue to combat this pandemic.”
Projects from Brigham investigators that received Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR) Request for Proposals (RFP) Awards include:
- Rapidly conducting clinical trials of novel therapies for SARS-CoV-2 using adaptive design strategies Lindsey Baden (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- Rapidly deployable ventilator splitters to accommodate COVID-19 patient surges Rebecca Baron (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- Analysis of COVID-19 immune responses Stephen Elledge (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- Wastewater-based epidemiology to rapidly diagnose and map the COVID-19 pandemic Timothy Erickson (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- Clinical impact and outcomes of COVID-19 in immunocompromised hosts Sophia Koo (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- Contribution to BWH Diagnostics Accelerator* David Walt (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- BWH-Critical Care Cardiology Trials Network (CCCTN) multidisciplinary collaborative study on the cardiovascular complications of COVID-19 David Morrow (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- Detecting the host immune response to SARS-CoV-2 in patient blood using ultra-sensitive assays David Walt (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- The human antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 Duane Wesemann (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
- COVID-19 sample procurement, processing, storage, and sharing/distribution Xu Yu (Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard), Jonathan Li (Brigham and Women’s Hospital), and Lindsey Baden (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)
Investigators in the MassCPR to perform multidisciplinary research projects; these awards are denoted by an asterisk*