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Drexel and Tower Health Researchers Study Immune Responses Among COVID-19 Patients in Nationwide NIH Study

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The coronavirus gives some people mild or no symptoms, and ravages others in cases that can turn into a death sentence. So, sometimes it seems like there are more questions than answers in this rapidly changing pandemic.

Does being at higher risk of blood clots make an otherwise mild case deadly? What role does age play as a risk factor for mortality from COVID-19? Is a patient’s immune response — an interplay of infection-fighting proteins, known as antibodies and cytokines, that allow proteins to communicate — the primary cause of disease deaths?  Why do some hospitalized COVID-19 patients experience low oxygen levels, while seemingly breathing normally?

Researchers at Drexel University’s College of Medicine and Tower Health are among 10 leading medical institutions nationwide embarking on a study funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to uncover insights that may help answer these questions and others about the immune responses to COVID-19.

Through the “IMmunoPhenotyping Assessment in a COVID-19 Cohort” study, or IMPACC, the team aims to advance understanding of diagnosis, biosignatures associated with symptoms, antibodies that predict protection in an effort to develop effective treatments.

“We look forward to harnessing our expertise in infectious diseases to garner critically important insights into why some patients fare better than others against this devasting disease,” said principal investigator Charles B. Cairns, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, FAHA, the Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean of Drexel University’s College of Medicine and senior vice president for Medical Affairs. “As the work could not be more urgent and the stakes could not be higher, I’m gratified knowing my Drexel research colleagues and exceptional care team partners at Tower Health may help turn the tide against COVID-19.”

Drexel and Tower researchers are tracking adult COVID-19 patients at Tower Health facilities as part of the national study of approximately 2,000 patients undergoing treatment for COVID-19 in a hospital.

Beginning in the first 36 hours of patients’ time in the hospital, researchers will track study participants in the hospitals for up to 28 days. The tracking will include DNA samples from blood and nasal swab samples during medical care. Researchers will also get samples during patients’ follow-up appointments every three months, for up to a year, to assess their recovery and level of immunity, if any.

The research will also compare severity of the disease with amounts of the virus detected. All this information, researchers say, may help in improving care for COVID-19 patients.

“There is a big gap in our understanding of why the virus can lead to a range of symptoms from asymptomatic to severe complications and death,” said study co-principal investigator Elias El Haddad, PhD, a professor in Infectious Diseases & HIV Medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine. “We expect that in this study we will be able to identify biomarkers that can predict a specific COVID-19 symptom. This will help inform us on the nature of treatment implemented. Overall, there are many attributes to the response being evaluated, but we look forward to advancing this work.”

Cairns and El Haddad are joined by infectious disease experts Mariana Bernui, PhD, Michele Kutzler, PhD,  Jennifer Connors, Zsofi Szep, MD, from Drexel, and Tower Health clinical partners Mark Martens, MD, Debra Powell, MD, James Kim, MD, Cecilia Smith, DO, and Renee McLin, to form the Drexel-Tower research team. 

“This study is a testament to Tower Health and Drexel’s commitment to remaining at the forefront of groundbreaking clinical research, high quality educational training, and compassionate, expert care for our patients,” said Martens, chief academic officer at Tower Health and associate dean for Graduate Medical Education at Drexel University College of Medicine. “We also appreciate our patients for their help as we garner new insights to defeat the coronavirus as quickly and safely as possible to save lives.”

The nationwide study is led by Nadine Rouphael, MD, an associate professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, with support of Clinical & Data Coordinating Center (CDCC) lead Al Ozonoff, PhD, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

For more information on the NIAID study, check out the NIH press release.

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