April 30, 2020: Inspiring Progress on All Fronts in the Translational Science Fight Against COVID-19

As a physician, I am accustomed to the need for rapid response to life-threatening situations. But the acuity and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the interpersonal dislocation caused by the social distancing it has necessitated, is beyond anything I have ever had to manage. Similarly, NCATS staff, scientists and grantees are accustomed to, and in fact thrive in, the constant innovation and change that our translational science mission requires. Even for the NCATS community, adjusting to the new COVID-19 realities has been an extraordinary challenge. It is at these times that people and organizations show their core essences. The last month has demonstrated the excellence and importance of NCATS’ science, as well as the character and grit of its people, in truly inspiring ways that have exceeded even my most optimistic hopes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the public consciousness a central NCATS message: now, more than ever, we need translation — the process of turning observations into new therapies — to move at fiber-optic speed. Translational science is key to making that vision a reality, and NCATS has rapidly turned its expertise, resources, paradigms and platforms to leading preclinical and clinical translational research that addresses the COVID-19 public health emergency.

In the preclinical realm, NCATS researchers have initiated 13 different projects to develop therapeutic options for COVID-19. Assays for each step of the viral life cycle have been developed, drug repurposing screens have been launched and testing of drug candidates from other laboratories is taking place. In one early success, NCATS researchers are collaborating with Acer Therapeutics to generate the data needed for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to support human clinical testing of emetine for therapeutic treatment of COVID-19. Emetine is a compound previously identified by NCATS as a broad-acting antiviral for the Zika and Ebola viruses.

In the clinical arena, the CTSA Program has led in myriad ways to get potential treatments tested and deployed rapidly. For example, researchers supported by the Vanderbilt University CTSA Program hub worked closely with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Clinical Trials Network for the Prevention and Early Treatment of Acute Lung Injury (PETAL) to initiate a large, multicenter trial of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) in patients with COVID-19 started in only 13 days. The University of Utah CTSA hub played a critical role in launching, in less than a month, two randomized clinical trials that test the benefits of HCQ in outpatients with COVID-19 — from trial concept to start of enrollment. A partnership between the CTSA Program hubs at Indiana University and the University of South Carolina rapidly initiated a study to understand immune response to COVID-19 in frontline health care workers; the study uses point-of-care serologic testing to determine if health care providers have been exposed to the pathogen causing COVID-19. These are just a few of the many projects demonstrating the critical importance of having the established, collaborative CTSA Program structure in place to deliver maximum speed, efficiency and safety during this crucial time.

NCATS is doing much more in the COVID-19 arena, both within the NIH and across the research ecosystem, and I look forward to sharing those exciting stories in future messages. In the meantime, as I closed last month, please stay distanced, stay healthy and keep in touch.

Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences