WINDBER – Scientists at Windber’s renowned research institute are gaining inspiration from the organization’s earliest days to address today’s COVID-19 pandemic while looking to the future.
Researchers at Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine are working with Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber’s new COVID-19 antibody testing program to explore new studies of the virus that causes the disease.
As employees at the two sister facilities have blood drawn for antibody testing, they will be asked if they want to volunteer to participate in COVID-19 research, said Tom Kurtz, who is president and CEO of both Windber organizations.
The blood will be stored in the research institute’s biobank for further studies as research protocols are developed.
The CSS Institute of Molecular Medicine began 20 years ago as Windber Research Institute, collecting tissue samples and blood specimens to study breast cancer while details were still being developed concerning how the studies would be conducted.
“We’ve been hugely successful over these years,” Kurtz said. “We are saying, ‘Let’s take that same lesson we learned and let’s see what we can do here with this COVID-19?’ ”
Antibody testing measures the body’s immune response to show if those tested have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease, said Dr. David Csikos, chief medical officer for the CSS Medical Center at Windber.
Although two different antibodies associated with the virus have been identified, there is no long-term information showing how they might protect against future infections, Csikos said.
“There is no data on long-term immune response,” Csikos said. “No one really knows how long the antibody will persist.”
Windber’s research team will look at the long-term response by retesting volunteer participants every three months for at least a year, Kurtz said.
Looking further ahead, the blood samples will be stored to allow scientists to design studies in the future, said Stella Somiari, senior director of biobank and biospecimen science research.
“There are many things that can be done with these samples to see if we can better understand the epidemiology with the disease,” Somiari said. “We want to take advantage of all the things that are out there to make sure we are building our knowledge to be able to contribute to better treatment and drugs.”
With a sufficient collection of blood samples, along with de-identified information collected about each volunteer, scientists can see how different individuals respond to the same antibodies, said Hai Hu, chief scientific officer for the research institute.
“We are brainstorming,” Hu said. “Nothing is set yet. They can be used as a future resource for studies, not only by us but potentially by other collaborators.”
Leonid Kvecher, director of biomedical informatics infrastructure, has developed a system to help analyze the specimens by matching them with information about the donor. It will include such traits as age, gender, race and ethnicity, along with body mass index and other medical conditions that could contribute to COVID-19 severity.
The antibody research marks a new path for the Windber research program, Kurtz noted. Its hallmark breast cancer research has been conducted in partnership with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s cancer program, and other studies have been in collaboration with major universities.
“This is the first self-initiated, self-funded project we’ve ever done,” Kurtz said. “This is something we saw as an opportunity to contribute to finding some solutions, some answers to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
On Tuesday, state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said more antibody research will be helpful with the nation’s effort to control the disease.
“We’d like to see a number of antibody studies,” she said. “What we don’t know is how protective those antibodies are against getting an infection from COVID-19. We need more information about that. We need more information over time about how these antibodies act.
“I think that will be very important information to know.”
Even if a successful COVID-19 vaccine is developed, the study of the coronavirus will continue to have value for scientists studying new viruses in the future, Kurtz said.
Somiari gave the example of an ongoing study in countries where tuberculosis vaccines are still widely given. Although evidence is mixed, some say there is evidence that COVID-19 is not hitting those countries as severely as others.
“That’s a study going back and gathering existing information and tying it to the COVID-19 situation,” she said.
Although Kurtz hopes to have enough volunteers from the Chan Soon-Shiong facilities employees, the hospital will also be offering antibody testing through local employers. If needed, some of those companies’ employees may be asked to participate.