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COVID-19: New Center Speeds Innovation

Guillermo "Gary" Tearney, MD, PhD,

Innovation Story

COVID-19: New Center Speeds Innovation

The new Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation is racing against the clock to put protective equipment, tests, ventilators and information into the hands of frontline health care workers.

Kay Cahill
April 3, 2020

Like a team of sprinters, hundreds of scientists, engineers and clinicians at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital are working at top speed to find solutions to the most pressing problems for health care workers caring for patients with COVID-19.

The center is organizing and focusing efforts on the most promising and quickly achievable goals.

The new Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation is a collaboration across the Mass General Brigham health system, formerly known as Partners Healthcare. The center is harnessing the system’s immense clinical and scientific ecosystem to swiftly design and produce protective equipment, tests, therapies and data to help frontline workers and patients.

After receiving a tidal wave of ideas and proposals from the biomedical community, hospital leaders put out a call for anyone interested to join them at a virtual town hall that was attended by more than 500 people on March 24, 2020. The new center was up and running.

Overwhelming COVID Response

With a deep pool of medical and technical talent, the center is already designing and testing new ways to generate desperately needed respirators, face shields and other personal protective equipment. They are also devising faster and more accurate COVID-19 tests and are planning to evaluate the newest therapies and crunch crucial data.

Guillermo “Gary” Tearney, MD, PhD
Guillermo “Gary” Tearney, MD, PhD

“The response has been overwhelming,” says Guillermo “Gary” Tearney, MD, PhD, a leading Mass General innovator of medical technology. “Everyone wants to help.” Dr. Tearney is the Remondi Family Endowed MGH Research Institute Chair and the Mike and Sue Hazard Family MGH Research Scholar  2012-2017. He is co-leading the new center with David Walt, PhD, a pioneering researcher of medical diagnostics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Wyss Institute.

The center’s devices unit has more than 60 full-time employees redeployed from Dr. Tearney’s lab and more than 800 collaborators. They are divided into working groups, many trading and refining ideas around the clock.

The center is organizing and focusing efforts on the most promising and quickly achievable goals.

Front Line Safety

The center is working to design and mass produce personal protective equipment to be distributed to hospitals within the Mass General Brigham system and beyond within the next week or two. Already, two new face shields have been designed and are being tested. A design for the highly protective N95 respirator masks will be tested soon. And the center has identified and tested a way to disinfect existing N95 respirators for reuse.

“This is not a research center,” Dr. Walt says. “It’s an action center.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Experts have also designed a full body box to protect health care workers as they administer screening tests, they have identified and tested a new sampling swab design, and they are evaluating mutiple ventilator prototypes.

Better COVID-19 Tests

Testing has been one of the most frustrating challenges of the pandemic. While the early shortage of tests and labs to process them has eased somewhat, the pent-up need is tremendous.

“The focus is on assisting the clinicians, the lab personnel, the frontline health care workers and of course the patients,” Dr. Walt said at a second virtual town hall, held this week.

David Walt, PhD
David Walt, PhD

Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Mass General and a Steve and Deborah Gorlin MGH Research Scholar 2015-2020, described how the many steps required to test patients for COVID-19 are interfering with medical care. “Turnaround time is key,” she said. Simpler, quicker, more sensitive tests would be immensely helpful because these tests would confidently rule out disease and negate the need for health care workers to use full protective gear.

John Iafrate, MD, PhD, director of Mass General’s Center for Integrated Diagnostics, says a new, faster, simpler test developed at a Cambridge biotech company is being tested at Mass General. It uses advanced technology to quickly capture the virus proteins in mucus, saliva, blood or urine.

Another test which detects antibodies to the COVID-19 virus is ready to be used in a pilot study. Antibody tests are useful later in the disease progression and could help determine whether health care workers who were sent home with the virus have developed immunity and can return to work.

Building Bridges to Industry

Obtaining the components to develop new tests has been difficult, but the center is building bridges to industry to solve supply chain issues.

“This is not a research center,” Dr. Walt says. “It’s an action center.”

And the organizers and collaborators at this fast-moving engine of innovation hope philanthropic support will help expand its reach and impact.

For more information or to donate to the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation, please contact us.