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COVID-19: Clinical Researchers Respond

Mass General is collaborating with other academic medical centers, locally and nationally, on clinical research focused on COVID-19.

Innovation Story

COVID-19: Clinical Researchers Respond

Under the leadership of Keith Flaherty, MD, clinical researchers at Mass General are teaming up to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Terry Byrne
April 9, 2020

The exceptional depth and breadth of Massachusetts General Hospital’s clinical and scientific talent are uniting to develop lifesaving treatments for COVID-19.

Katrina Armstrong, MD, chief of Medicine, tapped Keith Flaherty, MD, director of Clinical Research at the Mass General Cancer Center, to lead the hospital’s clinical research response.

Keith Flaherty, MD

Dr. Flaherty is the former director of Mass General’s Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies — a dedicated first-in-human clinical trials program for novel cancer therapies. He has been at the forefront of innovative approaches to targeted therapy and immunotherapy, which have proven effective in many malignant cancers. For his work on COVID-19, Dr. Flaherty is leading a team consisting of experts in infectious diseases, immunology, organ-specific physiology and clinical care. Biostatisticians and digital tool developers are also deeply involved.

A Rapidly Developing Pipeline

In the final week of March and the first week of April, our clinical researchers proposed or designed 40 clinical trials, partnering closely with pharmaceutical companies who are making their drugs available to academic researchers. Several have been approved and more are under review. In addition to searching for effective therapies for our sickest patients, the clinical researchers are pursuing even more trials focused on keeping inpatients from going to the intensive care unit (ICU); keeping outpatients from becoming inpatients; and preventing asymptomatic individuals from developing symptoms. Every day, new options are being explored and new potential therapies added to the pipeline.

Mass General is one of several leading medical research institutions participating either directly in the trials or providing input on which trials should move forward and how they should be structured.

Overzealous Immune Response

Dr. Flaherty says this coronavirus is a seemingly simple organism. “But how it infects individuals, spreads from person to person, and causes such a wide range of symptoms and severity are unknown,” he says. “In the most severe cases, an overzealous immune response depletes energy reserves and damages organs. Yet, an immune response is critical to clearing the virus and generating protection against reinfection.”

“Understanding exactly who has been affected and how they have responded will provide the most effective means of containing the virus.”

Dr. Flaherty and his teams are embracing a variety of approaches to providing the best care for every patient at every stage of the disease.

“In the intensive care units,” he says, “we are applying cutting-edge diagnostic technologies to understand which immunologic factors are responsible for organ damage, versus those that help to clear the virus. We are conducting clinical trials with drugs that target specific molecules produced by the immune system that we believe are most responsible for life-threatening organ damage.”

Broad Collaboration on Clinical Research

Some of the most promising therapies are being investigated on a national scale. Mass General is one of the sites participating in the clinical trial of remdesivir. Researchers hope it will inhibit an enzyme involved in replicating the virus. Mass General is collaborating with other academic medical centers locally and nationally, to advance several other trials. For the most innovative and unproven therapies — such as nitric oxide gas and chloroquine — Mass General is leading and coordinating smaller scale initial trials.

Dr. Flaherty’s team is also creating a biorepository of samples from more than 1,200 individuals, including individuals hospitalized with COVID-19, individuals cured of COVID-19, and hospital staff at risk of exposure to COVID-19. This biorepository will accelerate investigations into key questions around prevention, transmission and treatment of COVID-19. Ongoing research into immune responses that clear the virus will help identify which proteins are being targeted by antibodies. This will help inform and optimize the design of vaccines to protect against a recurrence of COVID-19 in 2021.

Rapid Response and Leadership

Dr. Armstrong, the chief of Medicine, says Dr. Flaherty’s leadership has allowed teams to be assembled rapidly.

“Keith quickly implemented a multidisciplinary approach to look at this virus across the continuum of patients, including the asymptomatic general population, symptomatic individuals in the outpatient setting, inpatients and health care workers,” Dr. Armstrong says. “Understanding exactly who has been affected and how they have responded will provide the most effective means of containing the virus.”

Mass General’s capacity to mobilize quickly, Dr. Armstrong says, “is thanks to the dedication and energy of our outstanding faculty and staff and the commitment of our philanthropic partners who understand the urgent need to act now.”

“My experience in venture capital has made me appreciate the value of funding projects that can be real game-changers …”

Commitment from Long-Time Champions

Rick and Lisa Frisbie have been long-time champions of Mass General’s mission. They have made a $1 million commitment — towards an anticipated cost of at least $10 million over the next 90 days — to help move this clinical research effort forward.

“Mass General is one of the three or four leading health care institutions in the middle of the many clinical drug and diagnostic trials now underway or being proposed,” Mr. Frisbie says. “We believe contributing to this effort at Mass General will make a dramatically outsized difference in helping to solve this global problem.

“My experience in venture capital has made me appreciate the value of funding projects that can be real game-changers, which in this case will most likely be drugs and diagnostics that work effectively against this virus,” Mr. Frisbie adds. “With the right drugs and tests, we will be able to reopen our country before the economic damage becomes cataclysmic. This will buy the time to develop the vaccines that will become the long-term solution.”

“We are making daily progress,” Dr. Flaherty says, “and we are grateful for the generous support of our donors, which allows us to be nimble with our investigations, even as we maintain a primary focus on improving patients’ outcomes.”

To learn more about how you can support Mass General’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.