COVID research at UHN goes virtual
July 14, 2021
TORONTO – UHN researchers, on a platform powered by the organization’s new DATA Team, are studying how older Ontarians respond to COVID-19 vaccines relative to younger persons in an attempt to understand long-term safety and efficacy. The first of its kind to be approved at UHN, the study is completely electronic, from recruitment to consent and at-home participation.
Participants are sent questionnaires and respond using their personal devices; they also receive kits to mail in small blood samples allowing them to actively see how well their body responds to the vaccine (antibody level).
These samples grant researchers the opportunity to investigate the effect these vaccines have on producing antibodies that protect from the COVID-19 virus and any new variants. Gaining heightened insights into all of this information is crucial to further the understanding of the vaccine response.
“There is much more that we still need to learn about how safe and effective COVID vaccines are in the general population to expand our understanding beyond those that participated in the pivotal clinical trials,” says Dr. Sharon Walmsley (pictured, left), Infectious Diseases Specialist at UHN, and Principal Investigator (PI) of the study, known as SafeTy and Efficacy of Preventative COVID Vaccines, or STOP-CoV.
“Finding alternative ways to allow persons from different regions and without proximity to a research centre to participate remotely in such studies will enhance our ability to address these questions in the broader Canadian population,” Dr. Walmsley says.
Digitizing this study and making it the first completely electronic study approved at UHN was chiefly due to the contributions from one of UHN’s newest teams: DATA.
Led by Dr. Michael Brudno (pictured, right), DATA is a group of researchers, developers, and computer scientists working together to enable better and faster medicine through smarter computer tools.
Historically, UHN relied on hospital-based research studies to investigate these results, but these have been in person and smaller scale. The pandemic brought about a need for digital innovation to effectively rethink the researcher and participant paradigm to ensure research did not come to a halt.
The result is that research has gone digital and on a large scale.
Using this novel digital platform, in the first 24 hours, STOP-CoV saw unprecedented numbers for recruitment, which would have never been feasible in a classic scenario requiring in-person content. Recruitment continues to climb, with now more than 1,000 participants joining through social media, with participants engaging with the researchers from the comfort of their own homes using personal devices.
Since the move to UHN last summer, the DATA Team has been determined to make considerable progress to embody the UHN culture. DATA transitioned to UHN during the pandemic and has become one of the key contributors to the digitization of healthcare.
Despite never having been to their new UHN offices, they have been utilizing their skillsets in software, data science, and artificial intelligence to create the much-needed health IT solutions for healthcare providers, frontline workers, and patients alike.
“Our goal, since day one, has been to help other teams at UHN be successful – supporting their efforts by building great software and analyzing critical datasets,” says Dr. Brudno, Chief Data Scientist at UHN Digital. “However, at the same time, we have worked hard to make sure our efforts support UHN strategic priorities – unleashing the power of technology and innovation and driving the convergence of care, research and education.
“We are also participating in existing UHN structures, including Synapse, to make sure that our solutions stand the test of time.”
DATA projects have covered a broad scope of applications, from research and quality improvement/clinical platform development to COVID-related efforts working to optimize the virtual care space and overall safety of frontline workers. As with any of their projects, the end goal continues to be focused on reducing the burden to patients and caregivers, optimizing the provider workflow, and going beyond the status quo.
While they have been busy working on multiple projects since coming over to UHN, some highlights over the past year include collaborating with Smart Cancer Care in building out new systems for collecting electronic Patient-Reported Outcomes, working with the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and UHN Digital.
“We were excited by the opportunity to leverage not only the wide range of resources UHN provides to foster innovation but also the teams across the network available to work with to get the best viable product possible,” says Amanda Silva, Program Manager with DATA.
Dr. Brad Wouters, EVP Science & Research at UHN and a co-PI with STOP-CoV, says the pandemic has “accelerated many changes in the healthcare and health research sector.
“We have seen rapid shifts in how we deliver care and how research is conducted, with increased reliance on virtual approaches and health IT solutions,” Dr. Wouters says. “UHN has embraced this shift and is actively pursuing new ways to push the boundaries in how care is delivered.
“The DATA Team’s contributions have been instrumental in making this possible. When we look back at the initial response for STOP-CoV it is clear that this was a solution to a gap that participants were waiting for.
“The DATA Team has led the charge in cutting-edge health technology for us to hit the ground running.”