Researchers at Brown: Prepared to Pivot in a Crisis

Physicians and scientists at Brown University and the Warren Alpert Medical School play a vital role in Rhode Island's pandemic response.

Front lines; behind the scenes


Dr. Jake Kurtis talks about testing, research, and the role of physician-scientists.

As COVID-19 infection spread rapidly around the globe, Brown's faculty, researchers, and affiliated clinicians immersed themselves in finding solutions and promoting effective patient care and public health policy. Below, Dr. Jake Kurtis helps illustrate the broad scope of the University's contributions during this ongoing crisis and what we need to consider moving forward.

What is Brown doing to ensure that important research continues beyond the initial pandemic response?

President Paxson has authorized $350,000 in research grants focused specifically on COVID-19-related research. For example, imagine if you didn't have to stick a swab up your nose in order to do a test. What if you could just blow into a tube? One of our scientists came up with a hypothesis and is testing that. We have individuals studying the basic biology of how the COVID-19 virus actually interacts with cells and causes cell death. We have individuals spearheading studies on convalescent plasma as a potential therapeutic for individuals with COVID-19 disease.

What was your lab working on when COVID-19 hit Rhode Island, and how did that research translate to help response efforts?

Our lab is primarily focused on developing a vaccine for malaria—a disease that kills 10,000 children under the age of five every week. Our current set-up allowed us to fulfill a critical need for the state, which was the production of something called viral transport media (VTM). VTM is an essential substance used in COVID-19 testing, but for a few weeks in March, the Rhode Island Department of Health and the Care New England hospital system were unable to source it from any commercial vendors. Our lab was able to step in and supply VTM during that time period, which allowed testing to continue throughout Rhode Island. It was a brief, but necessary detour from our malaria vaccine efforts.

How were other Brown researchers able to pivot their focus so quickly to help with COVID-19?

The strength of laboratory testing in our affiliated hospitals can't be underestimated. We have laboratories that are capable of doing laboratory-developed tests, which means they develop it in-house, versus commercially provided tests. The leaders of those laboratories have always had a very forward-looking vision for bringing testing into the infectious disease space. The next step was just pivoting them to COVID. You need physicians and physician-scientists in these roles in order to have this kind of response. If we, for instance, were outsourcing our laboratory environments, there's no possibility we would actually be testing at the level we're testing.

We've stood up seven separate testing platforms—all FDA-approved and authorized for emergency use—in the past several weeks. And when I say we, that's really on the backs of individuals like Ewa King Ph.D. over at the Department of Health. Dr. Kim Chapin over at Lifespan. Dr. James Sung at Care New England. These individuals have really delivered testing to the population of Rhode Island in a way that was a Herculean effort.

How has philanthropy from the Brown community affected the local response to the novel coronavirus pandemic?

In the beginning of this pandemic, you couldn't get a mask in the hospital. We had physicians intubating patients without the protective gear they needed. As a community, Brown was actually able to assist in addressing those kinds of critical shortages. For example, the Brown Chemistry Department is making essentially all of the hand sanitizer that's being used in our hospital systems. Alumni, friends, family, faculty, and staff are all making great contributions. We should be really proud of our response so far.

What do you think this pandemic has taught us about Brown's flexibility and readiness to meet unexpected challenges?

I actually think Brown has done a fantastic job. Our people on the front lines have been heroic. And I mean that in the most epic sense of the word. They are working, on average, two to three times more than they did before. They are putting themselves at risk, and they're doing it to take care of their patients. They feel it is their personal responsibility. I think our researchers have also stepped up to the plate. Several are engaged in work outside of their traditional University jobs. They're engaging with the R.I. Department of Health and lending their expertise for study designs.

I think the next phase where we're going to be able to gauge Brown's strength will be what we do in terms of teaching as the next semester opens up. I fully expect our faculty to rise to the challenge.

Jonathan D. Kurtis ’89 PhD’95 MD’96 is the Stanley M. Aronson Professor and Chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He is also co-chair of Rhode Island's task force on COVID-19 testing.

(June 2020)

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