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In search of answers: By studying the immune response to the virus, researchers aim to contribute to vaccine efforts and other strategies to fight COVID-19.

St. Jude Research Study Tracks Deadly Virus

St. Jude employees and researchers join forces for a deep dive into the virus that causes  COVID-19.

By Mary Powers; Photos by Seth Dixon

In January of 2020, Paula Condy, RN, felt crummy upon returning to Memphis from a New York vacation. Fever, body aches, cough, lack of energy, shortness of breath and other symptoms pointed to influenza. To her surprise, her flu test was negative. For weeks, Condy continued to fight the mysterious ailment, safely holed up in her home. By the time COVID-19 testing arrived in Memphis, she had recovered, and that test was also negative.

“There’s a possibility I could have had COVID-19,” says Condy, who has been a nurse at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for 24 years.

So, when researchers asked St. Jude employees to join a yearlong COVID-19 study, she leapt at the chance.

“I wanted to help the hospital any way I could,” Condy says.

Not only did she sign up for the study, but she also volunteered to collect blood samples from other participants.

Faculty and staff across St. Jude have answered the call to participate in the study, called St. Jude Tracking Study of Immune Responses Associated with COVID-19 (SJTRC). No PhD, MD or other degree is required—just a willingness to answer health questions and provide periodic blood samples and nasal swabs.

A deeper understanding

Public health interventions, such as social distancing and limiting business services, can slow the spread of COVID-19 and “flatten the curve” of the disease. But, new cases occur when those efforts are relaxed. Ending the pandemic requires a scientific understanding of how our immune system responds to the virus.

The immune system defends against infection of all types, but the immune response can vary person to person. Although some COVID-19 cases can be life threatening, many people will have only mild cold-like symptoms or no symptoms at all. Scientists want to find out how some people’s immune systems are able to recognize and control the virus without developing severe disease. That will help researchers better understand the illness and its spread. It will also help scientists know if having antibodies to the virus protects people from future illness.

Paula Condy, RN, collects a blood sample from study participant Miriam Dillard Stroud.

Research in action: Paula Condy, RN (left) of Pharmaceutical Sciences collects a blood sample from study participant Miriam Dillard Stroud of Cell and Molecular Biology.

A year of exploration

SJTRC participants, most of whom have no history of COVID-19, will provide blood samples several times throughout the coming year. These employees also volunteer to receive periodic screenings along with nasal swabs to monitor for evidence of infection. Anyone who becomes infected will be asked for additional blood samples.

Scientists use the blood to track the immune response at the molecular level. The findings will aid vaccine development underway at research centers in the U.S. and worldwide.

Some employees will be eligible to join the study if they become infected with the pandemic virus. They will have their blood sampled to study their immediate and long-term immune response to COVID-19.

“We designed this study to try to identify what it is about some people that allows them to cope well with the infection, while others have a far more difficult time,” explains Josh Wolf, MBBS, PhD, of Infectious Diseases. “That requires getting blood samples before and after infection and focusing on differences in their immune response.”

 

There was one question on the agenda: Could St. Jude mobilize the hospital’s faculty, staff and resources to perform an important pandemic study that could not be done by anyone else?

 

Global challenge

The project began just days after World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. James R. Downing, MD, St. Jude president and chief executive officer, asked researchers from across campus to answer one question: Could St. Jude mobilize the hospital’s faculty, staff and resources to perform an important pandemic study that could not be done by anyone else?

The global reach of St. Jude science meant task force members knew what kinds of COVID-19 research were underway at other research centers. The St. Jude scientists were also aware of pandemic research gaps.

“Widespread asymptomatic testing is crucial for understanding the natural history of COVID-19, including possible reinfection, but it was not being done elsewhere. St. Jude was poised to start,” says Paul Thomas, PhD, of St. Jude Immunology.

Dozens of clinicians, researchers and administrators from many departments united to open the study within a few weeks. Today, nearly 1,000 employees have joined the study.

 “I tell people St. Jude is a little village,” Wolf says. “But we have never been afraid to look outside that village and say, ‘What can we do to help the world?’” 

 
 

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