Page 25 - RU RWJ Medicine Magazine • Winter 2021
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Martin J. Blaser, MD
the Internal Review Board (IRB) and establish the study protocol for what would become the Rutgers Corona Cohort (RCC). They began enrollment on March 24, 2020, when New Jersey had just under 1,000 confirmed cases and was facing its first surge. Within two weeks, the RCC study enrolled about 830 health care workers from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) in New Brunswick and University Hospital in Newark, both principal teaching hospital affiliates of the university. It was, at the time of launch, the nation’s largest COVID- related study of health care workers.
Early baseline results from the RCC, released following the first two months of observation, showed that the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection was 7 percent greater in health care workers with direct patient contact, most commonly among nursing staff.
Subsequent studies have resulted from the Rutgers Corona Cohort, including investigations focused on the ability of taste and smell, a study of saline solution as an effective means to protect and transport testing swabs, and a study of cortisol levels in hair to measure stress during the pandemic. The cohort study also contributed to the groundbreaking saliva test developed at Rutgers by supplying the samples needed to obtain the emergency authorization from the FDA.
The largest study to follow the Rutgers Corona Cohort was the enroll- ment of approximately 4,000 health care workers, all employees of RWJUH or Rutgers Health practices in New Brunswick managed by faculty and staff of the medical school, to assess the prevalence of the virus and identify risk factors. The RWJUH cohort tested everyone for SARS-CoV-2 antigens and antibodies and collected comprehensive base- line data. A third study involved nearly 800 health care workers from across the RWJBarnabas Health system.
In early November 2020, Drs. Blaser, Carson, and Panettieri, along with their study team, including Emily S. Barrett, PhD, associate professor of
epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health, and Daniel B. Horton, MD, assis- tant professor of pediatrics, as co-lead au- thors, released the first findings of the RWJUH cohort, which reported that nearly 10 percent of the hospital workers tested positive for the virus or for the SARS-CoV-2 antibody, which suggests past recent infection, during the first two months of the study. In addition, the study determined that the health care workers at greatest risk of infection were support staff and underrepresented minorities. Black and Latinx workers had a two-fold in- creased susceptibility of infection compared to white workers.
Each of these clinician-scientists have also undertaken individual studies. Dr. Blaser is extending his investigations of the micro- biome, looking to determine if there is a connection to COVID-19 and whether or not the microbiome plays a role in suscepti- bility or severity of the virus, and in a grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), he is working with mathematicians at the University of Virginia and Princeton University to model the dynamics of devel- oping “herd immunity.”
Dr. Carson is leading two clinical trials to test for therapeutic treatments. The first, TriACT, is a 70-patient pilot study enrolling COVID-positive individuals within seven days of diagnosis who will be treated with either a placebo or a combination of three medicines to see if they will be effective at stopping the progression of the virus by measuring how quickly the amount of viral load is reduced in their bodies.
“This model has worked in treating HIV and Hepatitis-C because each drug works in a different phase of viral replica- tion,” said Dr. Carson, who explained that one of the treatments blocks the uptake into the cells, the second blocks replication within cells, and one blocks the emission of the virus from cells. “If this small study
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