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Collaborating Against COVID-19

The world has learned a great deal about COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but a significant gap remains between what we know and what we need to know to fully prevent, treat and work to defeat this newfound viral foe. Medical and scientific research is the driving force behind progress, and experts from Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and our partners at University of California, San Diego have answered the call to action by forming the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19/MIS-C Research Work Group.

This 28-person collaborative; led by Joey Principato, director of clinical research at Rady Children’s and Christina D. Chambers, PhD, MPH, vice chair of clinical research at Rady Children’s and vice chair of clinical research and a professor for the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine; unites investigators and research administrators from areas including infectious disease, neurology, emergency medicine, neonatology, nephrology, urology, critical care, general surgery, gastroenterology, hematology/oncology and general pediatrics. While the group’s studies are diverse, their overall goal is singular: to exchange resources, ideas and findings across COVID-19 studies in order to streamline efforts, maximize results and bring quality solutions from concept to reality as quickly as possible. “As the pandemic ramped up, our investigators were starting to find their niche in the study landscape, and we quickly realized that with few pediatric patients with COVID-19, and more and more studies beginning, we needed to make sure that everyone was on the same page,” explains Cassidy Callahan, clinical research navigator at Rady Children’s. “Leadership saw the need to share new projects and samples in order to maintain a positive patient experience and support as much research as possible in this critical area.”

Some studies are focusing on pediatric- or adult-only patient populations, while others will explore across the board. For instance, Rady Children’s/UC San Diego physician-scientist Stephen Bickler, MD, a pediatric surgeon with additional expertise in tropical medicine and hygiene, recently completed an investigation on how age affects of the body’s immune response to  viral infections. He will soon take his findings and compare them with a study of pediatric cases in an effort to determine why the virus’ effects on children are largely less severe. Currently, the group has 11 studies underway, with five more nearly ready to launch. Investigators and their work include the following:

Jane C. Burns, MD, director of the Rady Children’s Kawasaki Disease Clinic and the UC San Diego Kawasaki Disease Research Center and a professor with the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine

In partnership with Adriana Tremoulet, MD, associate director of the UC San Diego Kawasaki Disease Research Center, Dr. Burns is co-leading a 30-site, nationwide study centered on gathering data and clinical samples from children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. The rare syndrome, which bears many similarities to Kawasaki Disease, can appear in children following an exposure to the novel coronavirus and causes symptoms including rash, bloodshot eyes, gastrointestinal distress and inflammation of vital organs. “The samples from patients will be used for National Institutes of Health-funded science to better understand the immune response and the cardiovascular effects of MIS-C and how these may or may not differ from Kawasaki disease,” Dr. Burns states. This initiative includes antibody studies with the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, which will provide greater insight into immune response in children with MIS-C; and collecting live immune cells from discharged patients, which will help inform COVID-19 vaccine development.

Keri Carstairs, MD, MBA, chief population health officer at Rady Children’s and faculty member with the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine

Dr. Carstairs’ study will examine health disparities among different demographics in the outpatient setting as they relate to a heavier reliance on telemedicine appointments during the pandemic. Her work will identify patients who are missing key appointments, or whose specific diagnoses have improved or worsened after beginning video visits. Dr. Carstairs is engaging each specialty area at Rady Children’s, as well as the Hospital’s physician advisory committee, to ensure all patients are represented and strategic solutions are implemented. “We want to make sure that we are giving the highest quality care for the best outcomes with telemedicine,” she says.

George Liu, MD, PhD, chief of the Rady Children’s Division of Infectious Diseases and a professor with the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine

Working with the UC San Diego Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute, Dr. Liu is leading an initiative to contribute pediatric samples to a COVID-19 biobank program, which will store blood, saliva and other samples from patients who elect to donate. “This collection will help further the research and our understanding of the pandemic we are fighting today,” Dr. Liu explains. “Scientists at UC San Diego and Rady Children’s will be able to apply to use the samples through a diverse governance committee, who will ensure that the most promising projects have access, and will bring us closer to a treatment and cure.”

Since the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19/MIS-C Research Work Group is built for boundless growth, these innovative studies are just the beginning. “Any time an investigator starts a new study in this area, they are invited to join the group to get insights from their peers, support from research administration and a sounding board to make sure we are conducting the best research,” Callahan notes. Rady Children’s and our partners are excited to apply our expertise to working toward a better understanding of COVID-19, and, in turn, a healthier world. To learn more about research at the Hospital, visit www.rchsd.org/research.