Philly Researchers Are Speeding Up the Clinical Research Process With Coronavirus Trials

They're in uncharted territory, launching as many as 30 clinical trials just in the last 30 days.

(Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past month, researchers in hospitals across Philadelphia have launched as many as 30 clinical trials all aimed at finding cures for COVID-19. It’s rare to see this many trials launch in such a short period of time for the same disease. But mounting pressure to find a treatment for the highly contagious virus has local researchers working harder and faster than they ever have before.

At Temple University Hospital, researchers are currently running seven clinical trials to test the efficacy of investigational therapies for COVID-19.

Gerard Criner, professor and chair of Thoracic Medicine and Surgery at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) and director of the Temple Lung Center, is the lead investigator for four of those trials. In his 50 years at Temple, he says he’s never seen this many trials launch simultaneously in such a short period of time.

“It’s uncommon to run this many new trials all at once, but that’s what happens in a pandemic,” he said.

On an average day, Criner said he spends as many as 18 hours at the hospital. After doing regular rounds and caring for patients via telehealth, Criner juggles conducting meetings to review study data and coordinating with multidisciplinary care teams to determine which patients are best suited to participate in each trial.

“It’s a lot but we’re doing whatever needs to be done,” he said.

Temple is not alone in the hustle toward a cure. Jefferson Health and Penn Medicine are also running several trials for COVID-19.

Jefferson has four COVID-19 trials open for enrollment and expects to launch an additional seven trials by the end of May. According to David Whellan, founder of the Jefferson Clinical Research Institute (JCRI), it usually takes at least 90 days to launch a clinical trial. Most of the open COVID-19 trials at Jefferson launched in a mere 10 days, an unprecedented pace.

There may have been other diseases in which we offered a similar number of trials but we have never seen anything similar in terms of ramp-up,” Whellan said.

“We are currently targeting over 20 trials studying novel therapies, diagnostic tests or supplies for patients suffering from COVID-19.  This level of activity is unprecedented at Jefferson and represents the commitment and effort of hundreds of employees to meet the COVID-19 challenge.”

The sheer volume of clinical research has forced an all-hands-on-deck approach at most hospitals. At Penn Medicine, where researchers are operating ten clinical trials, even graduate and post-doctoral students have shifted their focus to COVID-19.

Scott Hensley, an associate professor of microbiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said his students have become critical members of his research team.

“I am lucky to have such a great group of trainees and technicians. Not only are they scientific rockstars, but they are really nice people who are fun to work with,” Hensley said.

“They have been running SARS-CoV-2 serological assays nonstop for the past month. Every night I wait anxiously by my computer for more data to flow in. My students, post-docs, and technicians are working around the clock, and I am so proud of them.”