Task force unites COVID-19 research

By Darla Brown, Office of Communications

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Recognizing the importance of a coordinated approach, UTHealth has convened a university-wide task force to help steer the university’s response on COVID-19 research. The pandemic has resulted in research interest throughout the world with substantial funding opportunities.

Charles “Trey” Miller, PhD, associate dean for hospital quality initiatives, director of the Center for Clinical Research and Evidence-Based Medicine, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery, and associate vice president for clinical research and healthcare quality, has been tasked with leading this group.

The task force was formed in recognition of the urgent need to develop a comprehensive research response to this global pandemic.  Many faculty are already working on coronavirus-focused research, and this effort creates a process to develop an organized and disciplined approach.

The task force met for the first time via a conference call March 31, bringing together researchers from across all six of our UTHealth schools.

The purpose of the task force is to connect investigators and provide a central point for discussion regarding research–ideas, projects, funding announcements, and other areas germane to COVID-19 research.  The goal of providing the best care to COVID-19 patients has highlighted the urgent need for research—to better understand the virus, the epidemiology of disease, and to develop evidence-based therapies and prevention strategies, including a safe and effective vaccine and novel therapeutics.

From that initial meeting, the task force established four main areas of focus: creating a cohort study involving all COVID-19 patients that interact with a UTHealth provider; coordinating informatics to link EHR data and AI tools; reviewing clinical trials; and establishing a biobank.

The cohort of cases is being developed and led by Eric Boerwinkle, PhD, dean of the School of Public Health (SPH), in coordination with the School of Biomedical Informatics (SBMI) and healthcare affiliate partners, and will be extended across all of Southeast Texas to maximize the capture of information about this disease and help to determine what risk factors lead to unfavorable clinical outcomes.

The workgroup in informatics is being led by Jiajie Zhang, PhD, dean of SBMI, and involves multiple UTHealth and Memorial Hermann leaders.

The workgroup on clinical trials, co-chaired by Luis Ostrosky, MD, professor of internal medicine, and Henry Wang, MD, MPH, professor of emergency medicine, will review clinical trial proposals. The purpose of the committee is to ensure that patients served by UTHealth will have access to the highest-quality studies available, and to assist the clinical workforce with integrating these studies into their already complex workflow. The committee, meeting twice a week, is charged with selection of the most promising studies that can reasonably be implemented in UTHealth-staffed facilities, and with provision of a gatekeeping function and scientific review before the studies are entered into the IRB process for regulatory review and approval.

The biobanking work group is led by Boerwinkle’s team at the SPH, and its governance committee contains members from all six schools.  The purpose of this workgroup is to organize, index, and store specimens safely, and also to coordinate access to patients to minimize the burden of multiple specimen requests, while assuring appropriate consent procedures for sharing.

The task force recognizes that this is a public health emergency first. Through the coordinated efforts of our scientists, UTHealth will work toward contributions to solving this pandemic.

A list of active projects can be found here, while a submission form for potential projects can be found here.