Collaboration Speeds COVID-19 Research

By bringing together experts with complementary skills, knowledge and experience, NCATS helps projects cut through operational roadblocks to contribute to new knowledge about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it. Read about a few of the collaborative efforts supported by NCATS that are enabling the rapid launch of clinical studies, the translation of data into knowledge and possible new solutions for further exploration.

The illustration depicts the shape and outer structure of a coronavirus. The virus uses the spike-shaped proteins, shown in red, on its outer surface to invade human cells. (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The illustration depicts the shape and outer structure of a coronavirus. The virus uses the spike-shaped proteins, shown in red, on its outer surface to invade human cells. (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

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A Network Approach for Understanding COVID-19 and Rare Diseases

The NCATS-led Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network (RDCRN) consists of 20 collaborative clinical research teams who partner with patient groups to study how rare diseases progress and to develop better ways to diagnose and treat them. This close partnership enabled RDCRN researchers and clinicians to recognize that many people with rare diseases faced new challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, from reduced access to needed medical care to possible heightened anxiety and stress. They launched an online survey to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting individuals with rare diseases, their families and their caregivers. Results will help researchers shed light on the needs of people with rare diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic and other potential health crises, in addition to informing future research efforts. Learn more about the survey.

Leveraging Existing Partnerships to Build a National Data Analytics Platform

Vast amounts of data are being generated that could be used to advance research efforts focused on COVID-19. But the datasets often become too large to share, and the networks for data management are so dissimilar that they cannot be combined easily. Making data more meaningful, open and accessible is a key goal in NCATS’ efforts to improve translational science and advance research across many diseases. NCATS, in partnership with the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program hubs and the National Center for Data to Health (CD2H), launched an effort to build a centralized national data resource for studying COVID-19 and identifying potential treatments. The National COVID Cohort Collaborative, or N3C, will create an analytics platform to systematically collect clinical, laboratory and diagnostic data from different sources, harmonize it and make it available for researchers nationwide to accelerate COVID-19 research and clinical care. If successful, this approach may help answer other research questions and serve as a model for addressing future public health emergencies. Learn more about the N3C.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue/green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample.(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue/green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Forming New Collaborations to Jump-Start and Optimize Studies 

Scientists at NCATS laboratories focus on key obstacles and inefficiencies in the translational process, overcoming bottlenecks that slow the development of new treatments for patients. They help collaborators do this, too. A prime example is a new NIH study: a serosurvey to analyze blood samples and quantify the number of undetected coronavirus cases — information that could guide the COVID-19 response. NCATS translational scientist Matt Hall, who had originally proposed the idea, pulled together a new collaborative team of researchers from across the NIH. Each colleague brought a different set of domain expertise and resources that enabled the team to begin recruiting study volunteers in less than a month. NCATS’ role has since expanded to include optimizing both the test that will be used to analyze the blood samples and the data collection efforts through a new data dashboard. Read more about the study.

Accelerating Clinical Trial Start-Up

  • NCATS’ Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program brings together academic medical centers from around the country to innovate locally, regionally and nationally on the myriad scientific and operational roadblocks currently limiting clinical translation. Having an established collaborative structure in place to enhance operational and scientific efficiency (as well as safety) is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, a CTSA Program collaboration between the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI) and the South Carolina Clinical and Translational Research (SCTR) Institute resulted in a study to determine if health care providers at a hospital have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19. The SCTR launched a fast-track approval process, refined the protocol and implemented the study within 15 days. Currently, all 440 participants have been screened and enrolled, with future participants currently on a wait list. Read more about the collaboration between the CTSI and the SCTR.
  • As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolved and underscored the urgency to get trials underway faster, NCATS’ Trial Innovation Network (TIN) and CTSA Program hubs stepped up to ensure effective support and rapid implementation of clinical research studies aimed to treat or understand various aspects of COVID-19. For example, the Johns Hopkins University Trial Innovation Center is supporting the planning and partial implementation of a suite of trials testing convalescent plasma to prevent or treat COVID-19. The team believes using plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 infection could provide immediate immunity to the most at-risk individuals to protect them from infection or help infected individuals recover. Read more about this clinical trial.

Learn more: See how NCATS-supported platform approaches pivot to COVID-19 efforts.