Harris Health System’s COVID-19 research contributes to worldwide advances

As quickly as the COVID-19 pandemic has overtaken modern life, so too have efforts by physicians and researchers to explore its origins, treatment and prevention. Harris Health System is home to a number of ongoing research projects including some to discern the effectiveness of existing drugs like remdesivir — now widely used, but still an experimental treatment for patients suffering from the virus.

Led by physician faculty and researchers from its medical school partners — Baylor College of Medicine and McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) — these groundbreaking projects are already making a worldwide impact.

“Harris Health has always valued its partnership with its two world-class medical schools,” says Dr. Ann Barnes, chief medical officer, Harris Health. “We all share a dedication to the patients we serve and the COVID pandemic has highlighted the extraordinary work we can accomplish as a team.”

At Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, UTHealth physicians and researchers are testing the use of leronlimab, an anti-inflammatory medication, to help COVID patients. The study (enrollment completed) measures the drug’s efficiency at helping patients survive and reduce the severity of their disease.

“So few treatment options exist for this novel virus, and we as medical researchers feel it’s our duty to continue to search for treatments to improve the health outcomes for people with COVID-19,” says Dr. Jordan E. Lake, who led the leronlimab study at LBJ Hospital and is an associate professor of infectious diseases, McGovern Medical School.

Additionally, researchers at LBJ Hospital are exploring the use of canakinumab (an anti-inflammatory drug for arthritis) to treat acute systemic inflammatory syndrome — a COVID-19 condition characterized by high fever and multiple organ failure. The hope is to find out if the drug lessens the condition and keeps patients off mechanical ventilators. Enrollment for this study has been completed.

In a future prevention study led by UTHealth, researchers will examine if administering monoclonal antibodies helps treat people diagnosed with COVID-19 and prevent people who live with that individual from getting infected.

“Our studies allow us to investigate the role of novel therapies like remdesivir, which now based in part on our studies at Ben Taub Hospital — the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has approved its widespread use,” says Dr. Nicola Hanania, director of Airways Clinical Research Center, Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, Ben Taub Hospital, and associate professor, Baylor College of Medicine.

While remdesivir (a drug used to treat Ebola) has become a de facto COVID-19 treatment worldwide, Baylor doctors and researchers are examining how changes in dosage and how its combination with other drugs like barcitinib and tocilizumab (anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used for rheumatoid arthritis) affect or enhance its effectiveness.

“We’re now investigating the role of blocking lung and systemic inflammation, so many anti-inflammatory drugs are being studied to see if they’re effective, but also if they’re safe,” Hanania adds.

But not all research involves experimental drugs or treatments. At Ben Taub Hospital, researchers are exploring the mental health of medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients. The goal is to understand the problem, how workers deal with it and develop wellness programs and interventions to help.

“The burden of social distancing, fear of getting infected and working under stressful conditions are anecdotally being reported as reasons for anxiety, stress and burnout,” Hanania says. “Various other factors may contribute to such outcomes and we want to know what we can do to help.”

More than 35 COVID-related research projects are currently active and more are planned at Harris Health. Several of these ground-breaking projects have completed human trials and are in advance phases of analyzing data. Many are collaborations with notable institutions like National Institutes of Health, Mayo Clinic, Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center, University of California and global pharmaceutical companies.

“Communities served by Harris Health have been hit hardest by the pandemic, and it’s critically important that investigations into promising treatments be made available to the patients we serve,” Barnes says. “We are grateful to have the resources and research expertise of our academic partners to best serve patients and to promote equitable care of all Harris County residents.”