Kelli Ruiz Tandy Lytle Windber Research Institute

Kelli Ruiz, Windber Research Institute director of operations, has blood drawn from her arm by Tandy Lytle, Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber laboratory phlebotomist, at the hospital as part of the institute’s study of COVID-19 antibodies on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

The Windber scientists are at it again – putting a deadly disease under the microscope with the goal of saving lives.

Leaders at Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine and Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber sat down with The Tribune-Democrat on Tuesday – digitally and safely – to discuss the start of a timely project: Antibody testing.

Blood tests for the development of antibodies has become a hot topic during the COVID-19 pandemic, with medical experts turning to individuals who have survived the novel coronavirus in the push to develop a viable treatment.

We’re not surprised that the local institute that probed breast cancer at the gene level – seeking better understanding of that disease with the mission of finding a cure – would now be addressing an immediate global health concern.

“This is the first self-initiated, self-funded project we’ve ever done,” Tom Kurtz, president and CEO of both the hospital and the research center, told our Randy Griffith in a Zoom interview. “This is something we saw as an opportunity – to contribute to finding some solutions, some answers to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Kurtz added: “We’ve been hugely successful over these years. We are saying, ‘Let’s take that same lesson we learned and let’s see what we can do here with this COVID-19?’ ”

Windber’s hospital and institute employees are also contributing to the effort – along with the scientists and doctors who work there.

Staffers can voluntarily provide blood for the study, with the plasma stored in the science center’s famed biobank – now used to hold breast tissue for cancer research.

Stella Somiari, senior director of biobank and biospecimen science research, said her coronavirus project team will be working toward a clearer picture of “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.”

Other key researchers include Hai Hu, the institute’s chief scientific officer, and Leonid Kvecher, director of biomedical informatics infrastructure.

As Griffith reported, Kvecher developed a process for cross-referencing the blood specimens with donor traits such as age, gender, ethnicity and measurable health factors.

Donors will be retested on three-month intervals for at least a year, Kurtz said.

The expectation is that the project will help scientists better understand why some people recover from COVID-19 and others don’t, and why some patients have more severe symptoms.

“There is no data on long-term immune response,” said Dr. David Csikos, chief medical officer at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center. “No one really knows how long the antibody will persist.”

State Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said the state and nation need more research exactly like this Windber effort.

“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.”

We’re proud that this local organization is again at the forefront of a crucial health concern.

But we are not surprised.

It’s what they do.

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