Sessions at this year’s Discover Brigham covered topics seen in the headlines and rapidly advancing in Brigham labs and clinics. Below are highlights from this year’s event. Recordings will be added once available.

What We Know About COVID-19

Gerald Pier

Athe Tsibris

Ann Woolley

Moderator and Panelist: Gerald Pier, PhD, Microbiologist, Medicine, Infectious Diseases

Other Panelists: Athe Tsibris, MD, Chair of BWH COVID Implementation Committee, Medicine, Infectious Disease, and Ann Wooley, MD, MPH, Associate Clinical Director for Transplant Infectious Diseases, Medicine, Infectious Diseases

In this preview video, Ann Woolley shares highlights from the session. A full video of the session will be added once available.

COVID-19 has uprooted everyone’s day-to-day — including Brigham scientists who are working tirelessly toward understanding the virus. Researchers are working on vaccines and immunotherapies, uncovering the molecular mechanisms of the virus, improving patient outcomes, and establishing the best post-recovery treatment plans. This session showcased these endeavors into the science of COVID-19, painting an up-to-date picture of the cutting-edge research being done at the Brigham.

Some highlights:

  • Tsibris described how compared to other viruses, SARS-CoV-2 has mutated and changed very little. “This virus is a sitting duck for vaccine development. We do take some hope from its virology.”
  • Genetic studies are looking for genetic risk factors that may contribute to mild/severe disease. The major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neanderthals.
  • Quick healers: Duane Wesemann’s lab has been studying this. More details here.
  • Woolley: “We want to diagnose early, prevent transmission and prevent people from progressing to severe disease.”
  • We know a lot more about whether someone has an antibody, but not necessarily what that means
  • Rapid antigen testing is inexpensive and has a short turnaround time. But it comes with limitations, including lower sensitivity, and is not approved for asymptomatic screening
  • For molecular testing, many sites are moving from nasopharyngeal to anterior nasal swabs. Saliva is under investigation. Some studies indicate saliva may be just as good for detecting the virus.
  • The Brigham is running a study with the Broad Institute to track the rise and cases in the Boston area by providing access to testing at home. More details here.
  • Pier described many of the challenging questions around vaccines: Who will get the vaccine? Who will trust the vaccine? How much vaccine can be produced?
  • Safety will remain a major point of focus, as well as communicating how exactly these vaccines are preventing disease
  • “Success of political and public health messaging may be of the highest importance for getting this vaccine administered globally,” said Pier

Hey Briggie: The Use of Artificial Intelligence to Improve Patient Safety and Experience

Stephen Penney

Diane Tsitos

Samir Tulebaev

Moderator and Panelist: Samir Tulebaev, MD, Associate Physician, Medicine, Aging

Other Panelists: Stephen Penney, MBA, Manager, BHIS Mobile Technology and End User Computing, Diane Tsitos, MS, RN, Nursing Director, Nursing Services, Burn/Trauma/Surgical

Siri, Alexa, Google Home, and other conversational artificial intelligence tools help us answer our questions, set our alarms, and beyond. But how can the power of artificial intelligence help patients in a hospital setting while protecting patient privacy? “Briggie,” an integrated AI voice assistant with the cuddly exterior of a teddy bear, makes its debut in this session. The importance of low-contact and social distancing during the pandemic means that “Briggie” could offer an extraordinary solution to patient care that limits face-to-face interaction without sacrificing safety or quality.

  • “Briggie brings us back to meeting the needs of the patient.”
  • On average, a nursing unit can receive 7,000 patient-initiated calls a month
  • “The patient experience is multi-faceted, but one of the most important factors to patients is that direct communication with hospital personnel — that is what really makes them feel heard and cared for.”
  • Voice technology is rapidly advancing with natural language processing
  • Briggie looks like a lovable teddy bear and through voice interaction, offers valuable, rewarding experiences for patients
  • Briggie is designed to interact with compassion, understanding and within a reasonable timeframe
  • Unlike other voice devices, Briggie does not listen to conversations unless it is specifically activated. Its nose lights up when it is in active mode.
  • Briggie will wake up every hour to initiate dialogue, and, if needed, can be easily activated through a squeeze of Briggie’s ear

Barbara Bierer

Bisola Ojikutu

Committing to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Clinical Research: The Time is Now

Fireside Chat: Barbara Bierer, MD, Faculty Director, Multi-Regional Clincial Trials Center (MRCT), Bisola Ojikutu, MD, MPH, Associate Physician, Global Health Equity

Gaps in clinical data for vulnerable minority populations have become increasingly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bierer and Ojikutu discussed drivers of these inequities, important reasons to remedy them, and offered potential solutions along the way. They also discussed how the Brigham and other clinical research authorities can address lack of trial population diversity and barriers to entry for vulnerable populations.

  • Underrepresentation in clinical trials of Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, women and individuals at either end of the age spectrum is not new. It persists across industry and academic trials and across therapeutic areas.
  • COVID-19 has brought health disparities into sharp and inescapable focus. And many of the populations hardest hit by the pandemic are underrepresented in research.
  • Are patients in minority populations even offered clinical trials and how are those options made available?
  • “If you don’t ask people, they can’t be a part of a clinical trial. If asked, Black and brown individuals asked have the same rate of saying yes and of completing the trial as everyone else,” said Bierer
  • Barriers to participation include mistrust. There are historical factors and contemporary structural inequity at play.
  • “Very little can change if people don’t feel like they’re an important and integral part of the process,” said Ojikutu
  • Learn more about Ojikutu and her research in a CRN profile here.
  • Find out more about the Multi-Regional Clinical Trial’s recent COVID-19 related efforts in a CRN story here.
  • Read more in the MRCT Center’s Achieving Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Clinical Research Guidance Document.

Getting Ahead: Advances in Food and Drug Allergy

Moderator: Tanya Laidlaw, MD, Director of Translational Research in Allergy, Medicine, and Clinical Immunology

Tanya Laidlaw

Hannah Martin

Joyce Hsu

Lily Li

Panelists: Lily Li, MD, Clinical Research Fellow, Medicine, Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Joyce Hsu, MD, Director, Medicine, Allergy, and Clinical Immunology, Hannah Martin, MD, Clinical Research Fellow, Medicine, Allergy, and Clinical Immunology

The Brigham has recently initiated two new dedicated allergy clinics to address food allergies and drug hypersensitivities — categories which make up critical patient populations for allergists. During this session, two ongoing research projects were explored; one addressing peanut allergies in young children, and the other addressing the overuse of opioids as a result of allergies to ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin. These studies demonstrate the incredible range of topics that can be addressed by allergists and the impressive potential of these new Brigham clinics.

  • World-class experts are working together to help children with food allergies and patients with reported drug allergies.
  • 1.8M children and 4.5M adults who have a peanut allergy
  • 20 percent of patients will outgrow a peanut allergy
  • For those at high-risk, experts at the Brigham offer skin and other testing
  • For children who already have a peanut allergy, oral immunotherapy is now available.
  • More details about the Brigham Food Allergy Clinic
  • Drug allergy overreporting can pose a major problem, including unnecessary avoidance of NSAID, leading to higher likelihood of opioid prescribing and addiction.
  • To avoid this, Mass General Brigham offers allergy evaluation to help guide therapeutic options


What’s Sex Got to Do with It: Risk and Management of Autoimmune Disease

Karen Costenbader

Maria Houtchens

Tanuja Chitnis

Moderator and Panelist: Tanuja Chitnis, MD, Director Translational Neuroimmunology Research Center, Neurology

Other Panelists: Maria Houtchens, MD, MMs, Director, Brigham MS Center, Clinical Care, Karen Costenbader, MD, MPH, Lupus Program Director, Rheumatology, Inflammation, and Immunity

Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases than men, and beyond that the course of an autoimmune disease is affected by gender, too. Commonly known autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus all are subject to these gender disparities, according to Brigham neurology and immunology experts. These scientific findings were discussed by Chitnis, Houtchens, and Costenbader in this session.

  • Genes, sex hormones and the environment contribute to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases in women
  • The same factors influence response to infections, including COVID-19, which results in more severe disease in men
  • In the Chitnis lab, researchers are looking at the role of endocrine disrupting chemicals in immune activation and autoimmune disease; sex hormones and multiple sclerosis; and the role of puberty and obesity in MS
  • Houtchens is looking at pregnancy and MS to support patients and their family planning needs
  • Costenbader highlighted lupus, another autoimmune disease that disproportionately affects women
  • Women account for 8 to 9 out of 10 cases of lupus.
  • Lupus is the leading cause of death in young women; onset is often during pregnancy and has a worse prognosis when it does

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