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New Center for COVID Innovation

The Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation (MGBCCI) was established in March to address the evolving coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The center is a joint effort between Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). It's co-led by David Walt, PhD, of the Brigham, and Guillermo Tearney, MD, of MGH. The MGBCCI was launched to help coordinate, facilitate and rapidly develop innovations for the most pressing COVID-19 issues affecting patients, frontline health care workers and the community.

"We recognized that there was so much going on across the Mass General Brigham ecosystem that we needed a coordinated effort to manage all of the different solutions that were being investigated," says Dr. Walt, a medical diagnostics researcher at the Brigham and the Wyss Institute. "The MGB Center for COVID Innovation was created as a vehicle to promote collaboration among all of the institutions and individuals within them who are addressing this challenging crisis."

COVID-19 Devices, Testing, Data and Treatments

The MGBCCI team has been working at breakneck speed to develop COVID-19 tests and treatments for patients and to protect frontline clinical staff across hospitals. Meeting remotely several times a day to brainstorm solutions, the center has four program areas: devices, diagnostics, data analytics and therapeutics.

Rolling out in four phases, the MGBCCI launched the devices and diagnostics units in late March and early April and recently launched data analytics and therapeutics. Within each program area, hospital leaders oversee hundreds of scientists, engineers and clinicians across the Brigham and MGH, the Brigham Research Institute, the Wyss Institute, academic institutions and life sciences and biotech companies.

"Each program area consists of working groups that are in close contact with researchers, clinicians and hospital leaders to understand unmet needs and what solutions are needed most. Once these working groups understand the unmet needs, they conduct 'horizon scanning,' applying stringent criteria to build lists of potential solutions that may help combat the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Walt.

Addressing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Shortages

The MGBCCI's devices program, led by Dr. Tearney, was the first to launch. It focuses on immediate needs surrounding personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators, face masks, face shields, nasal swabs, and how they might be sterilized and reused. These efforts run in parallel to the Brigham's development of innovative protective materials in the fight against COVID-19.

"The first order of business was to help the health care workers deal with the dire shortages of PPE by addressing supply chain problems. We also got industry involved to develop 3D-printed versions of face shields, masks and nasal swabs," says Dr. Walt.

Two days after forming the devices unit, members of the MGBCCI distributed bins across the MGB hospitals to collect masks that could later be sterilized once the reuse solutions had been implemented.

"We acquired disinfecting units for the hospitals that can sterilize face masks through multiple cycles of ultraviolet (UV) disinfection. The devices working groups are also validate and scaled up several new face shields. These are major wins that have kept us above water while the supply chain side catches up," says Dr. Walt.

As these solutions roll out, the devices unit is also focused on longer-term issues to anticipate needs that might arrive in the next phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

Developing Tests to Diagnose COVID-19

In early April, the MGBCCI rolled out the diagnostics unit, led by Dr. Walt. This team identified and implemented simple, sensitive diagnostic tests that can rule out disease quickly. These tests include urgent care and point-of-service tests, serological assays and direct-to-consumer tests.

"The Brigham has developed in-house diagnostics testing for patients who have been admitted to the hospital but don't yet have a definitive COVID-19 diagnosis. We are now developing seroconversion tests that can help identify people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, but only experienced mild symptoms or no symptoms and might be able to safely go back to work in the near future," says Dr. Walt.

When a promising diagnostic instrument or platform is identified, a validation working group evaluates its effectiveness and scalability. Promising diagnostic instruments are sent to the "Diagnostics Accelerator," where Brigham clinical laboratories pressure-test them and recommend the most appropriate solutions for implementation across urgent care centers, pharmacies, physician offices and hospital emergency rooms.

"The MGBCCI is working to identify a direct-to-consumer diagnostic test that could be used at home. When implemented, people can quarantine themselves if they are positive for COVID-19. These tests could help stem flare-ups of COVID-19 cases that will invariably happen when people return to work and reintegrate into society," says Dr. Walt.

In Dr. Walt's lab, researchers have developed a serological test that can run thousands of samples from finger pricks and can determine a previous COVID infection.

Investigators from the lab of Duane Wesemann, MD, PhD, a Brigham immunologist, are collecting and testing blood samples from people who've recovered from COVID-19. These samples will help the team learn more about rates of exposure, the types of antibodies an infection elicits and the degree of immunity recovered patients have against re-infection.

People aren’t looking for credit in this effort. It’s selfless. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received from researchers or clinicians asking, ‘How can I help?’ It’s a tremendous outpouring of generosity and capacity,” says Dr. Walt.

COVID-19 Data Analytics and Therapeutics

In late April, the MGB Center for COVID Innovation launched the data program co-led by Brigham's Adam Landman and MGH's Shawn Murphy. This unit is addressing how scientists, engineers and clinicians can best manage the accumulating COVID-19 data, analyze it and use it to develop better diagnostics and treatments that can ultimately help slow the spread of infection so that fewer people are infected at one time.

In mid-May, the MGBCCI launched the therapeutics program, co-led by Brigham's Lindsey Baden and MGH's Keith Flaherty, that is identifying, validating and advancing promising therapeutic agents or vaccines against COVID-19. MGB investigators have already initiated pre-clinical studies on coronavirus receptors, launched new clinical trials of promising antiviral agents and strategized about testing novel vaccines.

Turning the COVID-19 Tide Through Collaboration

"As this center launches, the greatest thing to see is the community come together to help address the challenges our forward-facing health care workers are confronting. People aren't looking for credit in this effort. It's selfless. I can't tell you how many emails I've received from researchers or clinicians asking, 'How can I help?' It's a tremendous outpouring of generosity and capacity," says Dr. Walt.

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