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UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence introduces core research arm

UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence introduces core research arm
(Photo by Getty Images)
UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence introduces core research arm
Robert Murphy, MD (Photo by UTHealth)

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) COVID-19 Center of Excellence was established to give patients access to the best clinical care, research trials, discovery science, and public health knowledge.

The center’s newest development is the core research arm, a collaborative effort with experts from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, and UTHealth School of Public Health. The clinical trials and data gathered from the core research arm is dedicated to helping adults and children who are suffering the aftermath of COVID-19, as well as aid in researching this virus for years to come.

“Our efforts with the School of Biomedical Informatics and Biomedical Informatics Group Analytics Research Center (BIG-Arc) at UTHealth allow us to gather large data sets from patients that have been tested for COVID-19 to evaluate all clinical aspects of the virus. By being a leader in research and partnering with Memorial Hermann, we plan to be an information source for local and state officials,” said Robert Murphy, MD, who is the associate dean for applied informatics and associate professor in the School of Biomedical Informatics, as well as associate professor in the Division of Critical Care at McGovern Medical School. “We currently have big data and AI capabilities to process this information as research studies progress. With over 10 years of historical comprehensive data sets from these patients, we can better analyze the results of the virus.”

BIG-Arc, headed by Elmer Bernstam, MD, MSE, associate dean for research and The Reynolds and Reynolds Professor in Clinical Informatics at the School of Biomedical Informatics, invites all school researchers and faculty to send a data request for COVID-19 research. BIG-Arc helps with the analytic duties for studies and maintains the data all in one comprehensive place. The center, made up of a team of biomedical informatics specialists, offer services to researchers and the clinical community. Read more on the intranet.

UTHealth faculty have been on the front lines of the pandemic response. Scientists and physicians at McGovern Medical School and the School of Public Health have led clinical trials and treatment protocols to help care for COVID-19 patients, ranging from studies to prevent the progression of the disease to ones designed to find proven treatments for those who are critically ill.

Charles C. Miller, PhD, associate vice president for clinical research and health care quality and professor of cardiothoracic and vascular surgery at McGovern Medical School, has helped to coordinate research interventions in cooperation with the center to provide continuity of care for patients who have COVID-19-related cardiovascular concerns. Miller also serves as associate dean for Hospital Quality Initiatives in partnership with Memorial Hermann Health System and serves as director of the Center for Clinical Research and Evidence-Based Medicine at UTHealth.

“Understanding the virus that causes COVID-19, individuals who are at risk, and following their treatment has been our top priority,” said Miller. “The center has served as an organizational unit for recruitment for clinical trials, analyzing patient experience and treatment strategies that have been effective. Treatments are changing rapidly, some have proved to be less effective or have small effects when used and more treatments keep emerging.”

Miller serves on the COVID-19 research intake committee at McGovern Medical School for all scientific review and approval. This committee helps to evaluate and prioritize studies that propose to approach a patient to request a specimen or start a trial, as well as to collaborate with the coordination and workflow committee to ensure a successful treatment plan.

“There are three components to this research. The first is the core research arm of the center which serves the hospital and health care components by providing collection of data in clinical practices at UTHealth, numbers related to COVID-19 diagnosis treatment in clinical care, and analyzes initial research in that area. The programs led by Drs. Murphy and Bernstam serve as the core of this effort,” said Miller.

“Secondly, the trial review committee aids the center in clinical trial and interventional studies to platform trials by helping to evaluate trials that test multiple different treatments from pharmaceutical companies and federal research funding agencies in the context of clinical trials, and coordinating work so only the best trials are recruited to UTHealth and Memorial Hermann Hospital,” said Miller.

“The third is helping to coordinate amongst research staff and workflows that allow patients to be vetted for COVID-19-related studies. Also, in some studies, biological specimens are being stored in the biobank for future use, to be studied and observed for many years after the pandemic passes. All the information and data gathered this year will help to answer scientific questions about the virus for years to come.”

The future of the COVID-19 Center of Excellence includes the advancement of reliable testing for the virus, validating effective therapies, applying big data analytics dashboards and artificial intelligence to enhance care and research effectiveness, and working with a diverse patient population to collect samples in a centralized biobank to understand the long-term effects of how genetics impacts the severity of the virus.

"They have extensive and detailed data on over 16,000 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 at Memorial Hermann facilities,” said Ricardo Mosquera, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School. “Historically, getting this level of research data takes considerable time with many delays. But, the UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics BIG-Arc team was very helpful, knowledgeable, and resourceful in supporting my research data request."

The School of Biomedical Informatics will continue to serve as a resource for the community and the world by contributing to health information systems in Harris County and other statewide information systems with state legislature-appropriated funding.

For more information or inquiries, contact the BIG-Arc team at or 713-500-3926, or submit a service request form.

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