COVID-19 research at Sanford Health


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Researchers are working hard to learn more about COVID-19, and some of that research is taking place right here in KELOLAND.

KELOLAND’s Sophie Heinemann joins us with a look at what researchers at Sanford Health are learning with a Q&A with Dr. Pearce.

HEINEMANN: We are joined with Dr. Pearce, the president of research, innovation and world clinics at Sanford Health. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Pierce.

Dr. PEARCE: My pleasure.

HEINEMANN: So I’ll start off by asking you what research is Sanford Health working on concerning COVID-19?

Dr. PEARCE: Yeah, right from the get go, you know, obviously, you know, a health system, having a research capability has been tremendously important, for that, for our patients. So we currently have about 10 clinical trials up and running, which really, you know, run the gamut of the whole disease. Never in the history of medicine have we’ve been asked to define really the natural history of a disease in such a short period of time. So we have clinical trials now, which are an additional treatment option on top of standard of care.

Whether you are, you know, on the respirator, whether you’re in the ICU, all the way back going back in terms of the symptomology to the first diagnosis.

HEINEMANN: Talk to me about some of the challenges that you might be running into doing this research.

Dr. PEARCE: You know, the challenges are, is really that, you know, we’re a very active research organization and we’re very passionate about continuing our clinical trials and research in all areas.

I mean, you know, right now, the national average for patients with cancer to be on a clinical trial is about 3%. And we’re very proud that 13% of our patients go on to these clinical trials. So maintaining the normal, and taking on this additional responsibility has been the biggest challenge.

HEINEMANN: Have any research projects had to be put on hold because of COVID-19 research?

Dr. PEARCE: Right at the get go, obviously, you know, when we knew so little about COVID and we wanted to preserve PPE, it was very prudent for us to sort of slow some operations down, as part of the health system to, you know, to pitch in and preserve PPE. But that was for a very short period of time. And we’ve gotten over that challenge.

HEINEMANN: How has research changed since cases first started appearing up until now?

Dr. PEARCE: Yeah, well we’ve learned so much about the disease. I mean, we’re fortunately here in the Dakotas, you know, it was in other parts of the world and then other parts of the United States before it really hit home here, and our physicians have just been tremendous and really just, you know, improving the standard of care, understanding, working with, you know, as a team with research and themselves in terms of coming up with the best ideas.

So, I mean, really the change is, is that now, if you really are severely affected your time on a respirator, for example, is much shorter than it has been much more below the national average, and the stay in the hospital. And then the hospitalizations are going up, obviously.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a function of the spread of the virus, not us, our ability to care for individuals. So we’re now at the point where, really, you know, if you’re sick, then you really don’t want to get COVID. But in the general sense, we can really handle this with a great portfolio of different trials that address this disease.

HEINEMANN: What kind of research still needs to be done to help understand how COVID-19 impacts our bodies?

Dr. PEARCE: So we’re standing here in Sanford Research right now, and we have, you know, a tremendous bench science capability where we’re really looking at the cellular level and then what this critical of COVID does, in the cells, so we can get a better understanding. You know, we hear so many different stories about how it affects different parts of the body in different individuals. And that’s a function of the fact that this is a host response. You know, we all respond differently to other viruses, so we’re just learning more and more about that.

So it can be more targeted and more predictive in terms of, maybe you would have your lungs affected, maybe my kidneys might be affected. So it’s called precision or personalized medicine.

HEINEMANN: Are you seeing more people become interested in medical research since the pandemic started?

Dr. PEARCE: I think, well, obviously the popular press has got a lot of opinions on science right now. And, so I think that, the general interest is much greater.

What I’m really so pleased with is any individual that’s been through this is just contacting us and saying, what can I do? What can I do? One of the things that we’ve done is, is that we know that there’s going to be a longterm effect in some people from having this, this virus.

So the first thing we did is we created a registry. So every patient within our entire footprint, which is large, but that has ever, you know, contracted COVID, we now gathering that data so we can learn more about it, but also follow those individuals in terms of, okay, if they’re starting to develop other symptoms, and we have 20,000 people in that registry right now.

HEINEMANN: Vaccines are on everybody’s minds right now. Are you guys working on vaccine research here?

Dr. PEARCE: Yeah. So we’re not specifically developing a vaccine ourselves, but we are partnering with a number of different groups. So where we will be running the trials with respect to that. I think the interesting thing is, and I’ve talked about this, you know, this is a time of war, essentially. You know, so many different platforms are being developed to develop therapeutics and vaccines.

So if you think about what a vaccine is, it’s actually a therapeutic as well, as well as being a vaccine. If you give that vaccine very early on, you know, it’s going to help you raise the immune response.

A vaccine is basically a way of boosting your immune system to attack and destroy that environment. So when working with SAB here, we know we’re the first in the nation to try their antibody therapy. Which ultimately could be developed into a vaccine.

HEINEMANN: What do you think is the most important thing right now for the community to know regarding a vaccine?

Dr. PEARCE: So there’s a lot of, a lot of information out there. A lot of misinformation out there. The vaccine will be available before the end of the year. The biggest challenge is, is that we have to understand how to distribute it and who to give it to first.

Obviously we’ve learned so much about who gets affected by this virus, and most severely. We need to give it those individuals. We need to be responsible with how we get that.

And the other thing is, is, you know, we’re running these trials here ourselves for a number of these vaccines and, there’s gonna be several that are available. What I really want people to understand is coronavirus, we hear so much about it. It’s really quite a dumb virus. It doesn’t change. We hear it mutates. It doesn’t. It’s not like the flu though. The flu changes constantly and we have to change the vaccine every year. You’re not going to have to do that for coronavirus. There will be one vaccine times several developed by many other groups that will all work in some way.

HEINEMANN: How many COVID-19 trials are taking place currently here at Sanford?

Dr. PEARCE: So we have, we have 10 trials that are open right now. And as I say, that starts all the way from, with our healthcare workers where we’re checking to see if they have been exposed by doing antibody testing with all of the things that we read a lot about.

All the way to being an outpatient. If your first diagnosed, we have some treatments that we think that should slow the course of the disease, and we can prevent the development of more of the disease. All the way up to, you know, get the most sophisticated therapeutics right now. First in nation, for example, using STEM cells on its sites, using immunotherapeutics that if you are in the ICU.

HEINEMANN: Anything else that you think is important for the community to know?

Dr. PEARCE: I just wanted to reemphasize that, I mean, I think I’m privileged to be running this organization’s research, I really am. And I think this community should feel as safe as anywhere else in the United States. To have a health system so invested in research, with respect to that.

Dr. Pearce answered many more questions for us, including when a potential vaccine could be available. You can hear the full interview, coming up on our Healthbeat Special: COVID-19 Research on Thursday, October 15th at 6:30 p.m. CT on KELO-TV.

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