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Wright Center informaticist leads international team for COVID-19 research

Organ transplant recipients, people with HIV, those with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis – the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially scary for people whose immune systems are compromised or suppressed.

Amy Olex headshot
Amy Olex, M.S.

They’ve fought or are fighting battles against other diseases – or even their own immune systems. And the newness of the virus means no one is sure how they would fare against it.

“There’s very little data on how immunocompromised patients will respond to COVID-19,” said Amy Olex, M.S., senior bioinformatics specialist at the VCU Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. “It’s resulted in patients wondering if they should suspend life-altering treatments.”

To help fill that gap in data, Olex is leading a team that will leverage a national platform of COVID-19 clinical data to guide and support research into immunocompromised patients.

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

The Wright Center joined the collaborative last summer, and VCU researchers can access the data for their studies.

“The N3C initiative and data repository has sparked national collaborations with the goal of answering many of these yet unanswered questions about COVID-19,” Olex said. “It’s already yielding vital research.”

Within N3C, a collection of Clinical Domain Teams enable researchers with shared interests to analyze N3C data and collaborate efficiently. The teams provide researchers an opportunity to collect pilot data for grant submissions, train algorithms on larger datasets and learn how to use N3C tools. With teams, researchers can build off each other’s work, collaboratively and efficiently working to improve outcomes for patients affected by COVID-19.

Olex leads the Immunosuppressed or Compromised Clinical (ISC) Domain Team. Initial research will focus on people with HIV, organ transplants and those with autoimmune disorders, including skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis and eczema. And the team will identify areas that warrant additional study.

“The ISC Team will mine the N3C data to identify how different types, levels, and durations of immunocompromise may affect severity and outcomes of infected patients,” Olex said. “The hope is that our research brings much needed clarity to healthcare providers and people who are immunosuppressed or compromised.”

Teams like ISC welcome new members. They feature researchers and experts like statisticians, informaticists and machine learning specialists who collaborate across disciplines to tackle COVID-19 and its health impacts.

N3C is hosting an open house to engage CTSA members, newcomers, and the wider translational research community beginning on Jan. 19. The event will kick off with a 1-hour symposium, followed by a week of open Clinical Domain Team meetings, including the Immunosuppressed/Compromised Domain Team.

VCU researchers can contact Amy Olex at alolex@vcu.edu with questions about immunosuppressed or compromised COVID-19 research.

Update 1/26/21: VCU researchers interested in learning more about N3C can attend two orientation sessions on Feb. 2 and 9. 

N3C key metrics dashboard Visit ncats.nih.gov/n3c for information
Image credit: NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

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