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VCU joins national data collaboration to fight COVID-19

Virginia Commonwealth University has joined a national, centralized data resource designed to help researchers study COVID-19 for years to come.

The National COVID Cohort Collaborative, or N3C, led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will securely collect and organize clinical and diagnostic data from patients across the country to create a dataset broad enough to engage in meaningful study of the novel coronavirus.

VCU joins more than 55 institutions so far that have agreed to participate in this national collaboration among hospitals and research centers. The institutions will send data, and researchers at those institutions will be able to request it.

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Tamas Gal, Ph.D.

“It’s difficult to draw conclusions from smaller data sets,” says Tamas Gal, Ph.D., the project lead for VCU at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. “Early on in the pandemic, there were observations about symptoms and outcomes, but no one really had the way to draw statistical conclusions, because there was no single center that had enough data.”

Patient identifiers are not included in the dataset. Researchers are able to interrogate the data through a centralized analytics platform without downloading it, providing additional privacy protection. The cloud-based N3C was certified secure by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program.

The project targets the capacity of research hubs like VCU’s Wright Center, who operate with the help of the NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards. The 58 hubs, of which VCU had the first in Virginia, provide a base for N3C data, but the NIH is casting a wide net for a diverse set of data.

Participation in N3C means that the broad, national data set will be accessible to VCU researchers, which bodes well for the many faculty members who have pivoted their work to tackling questions about COVID-19.

Research institutions collaborating on clinical data is certainly nothing new. VCU participates in national and global data sharing networks like ACT and TriNetX. But N3C is unique in the breath of data it’s collecting and the timeliness of its launch in collecting data during the pandemic.

“Clinical data is critical for understanding effective COVID-19 interventions,” says F. Gerard Moeller, director of the Wright Center. “N3C gives researchers an important foundation for future investigations, and I’m pleased that VCU is joining it.”

The Wright Center also participates in committees and working groups within N3C that help further develop the dataset and formulate research questions about COVID-19. The questions will inform future data points and selection criteria for the database.

“Inclusion criteria and the collected variables are continuously reassessed as COVID-19 research develops,” says Gal. “We want to make sure that all data required for future research are going to be available, so the work of the governance committee, as well as the data acquisition, harmonization and analysis working groups is very important.”

As the Wright Center’s director of research informatics, Gal oversees a team of data experts whose experience in biomedical informatics will be crucial to this project. The informatics team has activated quickly during the pandemic to build and maintain the data infrastructure that researchers need to make their projects happen.

The NIH awarded $25 million to the National Center for Data to Health to support N3C, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences will steward the project.

graphic credit: NCATS

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