A bank of biological samples created by medical scholars and clinicians could help Brown researchers answer pressing questions about diagnosing and treating COVID-19.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In an effort to better understand how to diagnose and treat patients with COVID-19, physician-scholars at the Brown-based Advance Clinical and Translational Research (Advance-CTR) have partnered with Rhode Island’s Lifespan health system to create a bank of plasma and serum samples from patients who have been tested for novel coronavirus.
Project leaders say the COVID-19 Biobank, launched in May 2020 and housed at the Lifespan Clinical Research Center at Rhode Island Hospital, is helping more than a dozen teams of Brown researchers confront questions that every medical professional working amid the pandemic wants answered — including how best to diagnose positive cases of COVID-19, how to predict the immune responses of individuals with the virus, and how to prevent hospitalized patients from suffering long-term damage to their health.
Founded with a grant from a COVID-19 Research Seed Fund launched by the University to fast-track innovative research addressing the direct effects of the pandemic, the biobank exemplifies Brown’s growing focus on translational science — ensuring that breakthroughs in basic research are advanced to the point where they can make a meaningful medical difference for patients, and that urgent scientific questions identified in the clinic or among patient populations become research priorities in the lab.
“In order for our scientists to make any headway in treating this virus, they need direct access to blood samples from primary patients who were tested for COVID-19,” said Bharat Ramratnam, the co-principal investigator of the project, vice chair of research for the Department of Medicine at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School and chief science officer at Lifespan.
Ramratnam said it is often difficult for virus researchers to obtain human biological samples, as many don’t have direct access to patients or to clinical hospital staff. The early stages of the pandemic brought additional challenges for researchers at Brown, including limited access to personal protective equipment and restrictions on hospital access for non-clinical staff, making it difficult for those researchers to reach patients safely.
But thanks to the extensive levels of partnership between the Warren Alpert Medical School and Lifespan, researchers and working medical professionals have found what they say is an efficient, safe and ethical way to collect blood samples from patients with potential symptoms of COVID-19 who seek care in emergency departments at Rhode Island Hospital and the Miriam Hospital.
Ramratnam said research assistants in those emergency departments and at the Lifespan Clinical Research Center are contacted every time a patient reporting a flu-like illness comes to the hospital. After patients have received clinical care, research assistants have the opportunity to ask them to donate blood to the COVID-19 Biobank, following a Lifespan- and Brown-approved consent process.
“If they’re too ill or not interested, we leave,” he said. “If they express interest, we tell them exactly what it entails, what samples we will take and how we will safeguard their primary health information. The importance of implementing a crystal-clear informed consent process was something we thought was paramount.”
According to biobank supervisor Rony Lopez, clinical staff have collected blood samples from about 130 patients since the biobank was launched in May. The patients vary in age, sex, race and income level; some tested positive for COVID-19 and others tested negative. Technicians at the Clinical Research Center have used the samples to process nearly 3,000 vials of plasma, serum and peripheral blood mononuclear cells, which has already aided researchers in a wide variety of virus-related studies.
So far, Ramratnam said, between 15 to 20 research teams at Brown have used the samples to begin research that aims to help doctors diagnose COVID-positive patients more easily and effectively, predict individual patients’ capacity to recover from the virus, and prevent COVID-positive patients from suffering long-term organ and lung damage.
Dr. Wafik El-Deiry, a professor of medical science, pathology and laboratory medicine who leads the new Cancer Center at Brown University, used plasma samples from the biobank in a clinical research experiment launched alongside other Brown faculty, graduate student researchers, Lifespan employees and investigators at Boston biotech company Verastem Oncology. Typically focused on cancer and lung disease research, El-Deiry and colleagues drew on their knowledge of cell biology and the immune system to identify a class of drugs that may help treat non-life-threatening symptoms of novel coronavirus. El-Deiry noted that his ad hoc research team, Brown Experimentalists Against COVID-19, received a University COVID-19 Research Seed Fund award to support the work.
“If we lessen the ability of the viral infection to spread by blocking the infection process and by stimulating the immune system early on, we predict patients would not get as sick,” El-Deiry said. “While we hope a COVID-19 vaccine is found soon, we know because of illnesses such as the flu that vaccines don’t prevent illness in everyone. With this research, we hope to have demonstrated a way to treat those who still get infected and become ill. Without the availability of COVID-19-positive plasma samples through the biobank, we could not have arrived at these findings so quickly.”
Brown and Lifespan launched the COVID-19 Biobank so quickly — Ramratnam said it took them about a week — that their clinicians and researchers have since been inundated with questions from other centers for translational research who are interested in doing the same. Ramratnam hopes Advance-CTR can eventually partner with other centers to build a national virtual biobank.
“We did it in record time, which proves that wonderful things happen when our medical school and our hospitals team up,” he said. “Building this biobank required financial and intellectual support from both constituents and couldn’t have been possible without one or the other. It’s been a true combined effort.”