Stopping COVID-19: Emory Researchers Embark on an Epic Journey to Tackle Humanity’s Big Test
Dr. Aneesh Mehta stood in the still hallway outside the hospital room where his patient lay dying.
Just days earlier, Mehta had discussed treatment options with the vital and alert elderly businessman who came in with COVID-19. The patient was interested in Emory’s clinical trial of the antiviral remdesivir, which Mehta was leading.
Now he was in intensive care at Emory University Hospital, having taken a rapid turn for the worse. His only companion was a nurse in full protective gear. She held his smartphone in one hand. On the line, his family was saying goodbye, their grief playing out in a room far away. Mehta watched as the man’s granddaughter told stories of their life together. It was unclear if the man, who was heavily sedated, understood. He stopped breathing soon after.
Even months later, Mehta gets emotional as he recalls that day in April. An infectious disease doctor and researcher who cut his teeth during the Ebola outbreak, Mehta has seen his share of death. But to watch a man die without his loved ones at his bedside was wrenching.
“No one wants to see a patient die. What is heartbreaking about COVID-19 is that so many patients are dying and they are dying alone,” Mehta says.
It also crystallized for Mehta what was at stake. The final trial results for remdesivir, which had failed for this patient, turned out to be so promising that top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci hailed it as the new standard of care. It became the first treatment for COVID-19 approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“It shows that what we do scientifically and medically has a tremendous impact,” Mehta says. “This is research being done to save the lives of our patients in our hospitals right now. This is why we are here.”
Since the pandemic began, federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have ramped up their support, entrusting academic research institutions such as Emory to do what they do best: help solve big challenges.
In response, Emory mobilized its discovery enterprise to safely and quickly accelerate research, emerging as a national leader in coronavirus-related research; in a span of months, its investigators had launched 177 studies, including more than 30 clinical trials, and published more than 350 papers on COVID-19.
When the fiscal year closed at the end of August, Emory had earned a record $831 million in research funding. More than 10 percent of the total ($88.3 million) was for COVID-19 research, a testament to the ability of researchers to shift course rapidly to tackle the world’s biggest public health crisis in more than a hundred years.
The Emory difference: A culture of collaboration and nimbleness
Soon after the pandemic swept the country, biomedical research found itself confined to a select few labs at Emory. Researchers pivoted, shifting their expertise and resources toward fighting an unprecedented threat in a variety of ways. For instance:
- Specialty experts such as Dr. Denise Jamieson, chair of gynecology and obstetrics, joined colleagues across the country to develop national guidelines for pregnant women with COVID-19.
- Virologist Dr. Mehul Suthar and immunologist Dr. Jens Wrammert took on the ambitious task of understanding immunity among those infected with SARS-CoV-2. One strand of their research looks at the durability of immunity—in other words, could those who were once infected be reinfected? How long will protection provided by a vaccine last?
- Rheumatologist Dr. Ignacio Sanz and colleagues shifted gears from studying autoimmune diseases to severe COVID-19. They identified similar activation patterns as they had seen in lupus, which has possible implications for survivors with recurring “long-haul” symptoms.
- Oncologists at Emory who had experience with radiation treatment or studying graft-versus-host disease adapted their therapies to tamp down COVID-19 inflammation.
“In my short time at Emory, I’ve been deeply impressed by the dedication of our researchers and clinicians, whose cutting-edge discoveries are opening new pathways of understanding in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “Emory’s record research funding this year reflects well upon not only their expertise, but the trust they have earned in helping to meet the greatest global health challenges.”
“At a time of great uncertainty, our researchers, staff and clinicians are responding with grit, courage and compassion,” says Dr. Jonathan Lewin, executive vice president for health affairs at Emory, executive director for Woodruff Health Sciences Center and CEO/chair of the board of Emory Healthcare. “They are working day and night to improve lives and provide hope through the development of new vaccines and by discovering new ways to diagnose and treat people with COVID-19.”
Full story at news.emory.edu>>