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Understanding COVID-19

DONOR INVESTMENT ACCELERATES CRITICAL RESEARCH on the pandemic

The ability of The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital to rapidly provide support for scientific research to understand the biology of this infection, and to speed the development of countermeasures—testing, treatments and vaccines—was critical in accelerating research in our laboratories and for our patients.

William G. Powderly, the Dr. J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine, co-director, Infectious Diseases Division and Larry J. Shapiro Director, Institute for Public Health at Washington University School of Medicine and director, Washington University Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences

Through the generosity of donors, The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital is playing a critical role in Washington University School of Medicine’s extensive research efforts aimed at ending the COVID-19 pandemic. These critical studies, which are being conducted by collaborating departments across the university, include research into possible treatments and vaccines and the establishment of a registry to track COVID-19 patients and their families.

This large-scale research is being coordinated by a Washington University COVID-19 task force, being led in part by William G. Powderly, the Dr. J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine, co-director, Infectious Diseases Division and Larry J. Shapiro Director, Institute for Public Health at Washington University School of Medicine and director, Washington University Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences. The ICTS is coordinating Washington University COVID-19 research activities to prioritize, promote and actively support the most promising studies, and enhance patient safety in a coordinated response to the pandemic.

“A completely new health threat, such as that posed by the pandemic SARS CoV-2 virus infection, is an enormous challenge for everyone involved in medical research,” says Dr. Powderly. “The ability of The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital to rapidly provide support for scientific research to understand the biology of this infection, and to speed the development of countermeasures—testing, treatments and vaccines—was critical in accelerating research in our laboratories and for our patients.”

Urgent funding became available quickly due to the Foundation’s high priority consideration of grant applications that address the pressing health needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the funds made available to Dr. Powderly and his colleagues, the Foundation rapidly provided funds to a program that tests whether blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors can be used successfully to treat critically ill coronavirus patients. Driven by donor support, the Foundation helped researchers become national leaders in this promising research.

“This was an urgent funding niche that leveraged special resources on short notice and I think will benefit Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Just pitch perfect philanthropic support,” says Jeffrey P. Henderson, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine and of molecular microbiology.

“As a result, we are the first of the academic medical centers in our founding group (Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Mayo Clinic) to do plasma therapy for COVID-19,” Dr. Henderson says.

Dr. Henderson serves on the Washington University team led by principal investigator Rachel Presti, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine. Other members include Brenda J. Grossman, MD, a professor of pathology and immunology and of medicine, and Derek E. Byers, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine.

People who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies in their blood that target the virus. Researchers believe that they might be able to fight COVID-19 infections by transfusing what is known as convalescent plasma from survivors into patients who are seriously ill with the virus. The approach has been used with some success against viral illnesses such as polio, influenza and SARS, the latter of which is caused by a virus closely related to the one that causes COVID-19.

Washington University researchers began enrolling potential plasma donors in early April. Volunteers who have detectable antibody levels and meet other criteria to donate plasma for clinical use have been making donations at their local blood banks, coordinated by the Red Cross. Plasma treatments are being given to COVID-19 patients in intensive care at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and other sites where doctors believe they could benefit from the experimental therapy.

In another example, the Foundation is supporting Washington University’s trial of antimalarial and antibiotic drugs to treat COVID-19 patients. Express Scripts, a Cigna company, donated these medications for the clinical trial being conducted at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The treatments are only for patients who are ill enough to be admitted to the hospital.

The Foundation is able to respond rapidly to the pandemic and other crisis situations through gifts to its COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, which was immediately established at the inception of the pandemic. Through this fund, we are ensuring our frontline health care workers are equipped with essential personal protection equipment and helping physician-scientists accelerate research to develop COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. 

*Photo by Matt Miller/Washington University School of Medicine