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USF researchers join push to find COVID-19 treatments

The Tampa-based medical teams have launched dozens of coronavirus-related clinical trials aimed at lessening symptoms and preventing the disease.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for the robust research office at USF Health to begin 10 new clinical trials in a month.

Now the University of South Florida’s medical research arm is jump-starting nearly 10 new clinical trials a week, said Rachel Karlnoski, director of USF Health Clinical Research Operations. In recent days, USF Health researchers have launched dozens of new trials, which will test ways to prevent and lessen the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Tampa General Hospital also will participate in the effort, which will take a closer look at a range of treatments and medications that hold promise but require more testing before they can safely be used on patients.

“We’re getting inundated with requests to start new trials,” Karlnoski said. “They are really rolling through the door right now, and we’ve prioritized COVID-19 studies.”

It usually takes a clinical trial 90 days or more to get started, Karlnoski said. But in the current climate, researchers are able to fast-track the process and begin working in five days or less.

USF has been hand-picked to lead some of these trials because of the relationships the school has cultivated over the years with research organizations and pharmaceutical companies that fund them, Karlnoski said.

For example, USF is known as a leader in neurology research, specifically in multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, migraines and Parkinson’s disease. Karlnoski said that area makes up the bulk of the trials USF participates in every year.

“We’re one of the front runners in multiple sclerosis, so we’ve created a good reputation,” she said. “So that research group researched out to us and asked if we had an investigator interested in running a COVID-19 trial."

Another opportunity came through the school’s obstetrics and gynecology program, she said.

The current clinical trials vary greatly — from looking into the efficacy of drugs like hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria medication, and its ability to fight COVID-19, to collecting plasma from recovered patients to begin testing antibody response.

“The list grows every day," Karlnoski said. "I have 17 current clinical trials on my desk, and just added three today.”

Among the trials that are underway, or nearly underway, at USF Health:

  • A test to determine how well the antibody sarilumab blocks inflammation in the lungs in hospitalized severely ill patients.
  • Two studies, one in adults and the other in children, that examine the emergency use of remdesivir, an antiviral drug that may help kill the coronavirus. These studies are for critically ill COVID-19 patients.
  • Several studies looking at the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. They will examine how the drug impacts severely ill COVID-19 patients, health care workers and patients who are not hospitalized.
  • Tests to measure the accuracy of 3D printed nasal swabs, compared to standard swabs, when used in testing for COVID-19.

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