Top local researchers look to bring COVID-19 vaccine trials to Detroit

Top research doctors at four Southeast Michigan health systems and Wayne State University in Detroit have formed a partnership to participate in large-scale COVID-19 drug trials they hope will lead to a vaccine, antiviral medicines and other drugs to combat the deadly coronavirus.

Physician participants who formed the study group are part of Henry Ford Health System, Ascension Michigan, Beaumont Health, Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State.

The doctors collectively treat thousands of patients a year, some of whom are expected to volunteer to test the potentially life-saving treatment options. Other doctors within the five health organizations also could participate, adding thousands more potential subjects.

“The whole idea is we want to collaborate in the region, apply for the new trials and be part of discovering best practices and treatments for COVID-19,” Henry Ford’s William “Bill” O’Neill, one of the nation’s leading interventional cardiologists, said in a statement.

In an interview Friday with Crain’s, O’Neill said the idea to bring the systems together for the research project came to him suddenly on March 19. He said he put everything in place in less than a week.

“We’re going to be very competitive. We want to figure out how to optimally treat these patients, to establish protocols and systems so we can all do things effectively and, very importantly, to quickly track outcomes,” said O’Neill, who also is medical director of the six-hospital system’s Center for Structural Heart Disease.

The other four researchers part of the local consortium are cardiologists Shukri David, M.D., with Ascension; and Amr Abbas, M.D., with Beaumont; emergency medicine physician Brian O’Neil, M.D., with DMC; and Phillip Levy, M.D., a professor and associate chair for research in Wayne State’s department of emergency medicine.

“This viral pandemic has no boundaries,” David, who is chair of cardiovascular services at Ascension, said in a statement. “By combining the resources of our medical community, we will offer research opportunities that no one institution alone can defeat. Our efforts are stronger when we work together.”

O’Neill said physicians’ collaboration came about from an informal workgroup led by O’Neill that in 2016 led to an initiative to lower the death rate from cardiogenic shock, a potentially fatal side effect of massive heart attacks.

The doctors created what is now the basis for the National Cardiogenic Shock Initiative, used by cardiologists to save lives across the United States. They showed a specific treatment protocol increased patient survival in Southeast Michigan from 50 percent to more than 70 percent. That treatment is now known as the “Detroit protocol.”

This time, when news of coronavirus’ deadly impact on world populations became evident earlier this year, O’Neill reached out to the others and also leaders at Henry Ford. O’Neill, a Crain’s Health Care Hero in 2018, suggested they use that previous collaborative experience to work together to bring randomized, controlled clinical drug trials to metro Detroit.

“We hope to replicate that success on a much larger scale in our battle with COVID-19 today and support our colleagues who are on the front lines,” said Brian O’Neil from DMC. He and Bill O’Neill are not related.

Other efforts along these lines are also under way at the various hospitals and Wayne State. The COVID-19 collaborators are working in support of these efforts with infectious disease doctors and scientists at their respective hospitals.

Two weeks ago, Adnan Munkarah, M.D., Henry Ford’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer, told Crain’s that the health system’s infectious disease doctors are working to join other teaching hospitals where clinical trials are being conducted on antivirals to find effective medicines.

“We are looking what can be done here. We could do clinical trials. We are talking about doing that,” said Munkarah, adding that Henry Ford’s institutional review board could act quickly to approve a trial if the hospitals where the clinical trials being conducted move quickly to include Henry Ford.

“It usually takes a while before that can get done. Because it is starting to hit us now, we hope we can expedite the process,” he said.

Munkarah said effective antivirals that could be used on COVID-19 patients are months away from being put into practical use. A vaccine against coronavirus may take until next year.

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