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Rising to the Scientific Challenge of COVID-19

May 22, 2020

As the world clamors for effective treatments and a vaccine against COVID-19, Atlantic Health System is not sitting back, waiting for someone else to find a cure.

A multidisciplinary team is working around the clock, fast-tracking studies and doing whatever they can to improve the quality of care for patients. Over the past several weeks, Atlantic Health System has created and grown a COVID-19 research program, seemingly overnight.  

With no proven or effective therapies, the primary objective is to assist in finding a treatment that will either aid in symptom reduction or help develop a cure, said Jan Schwarz-Miller, MD, SVP, and chief medical and academic officer, Atlantic Health System.

With help and input from every level of the organization, the research program has soared to one that is equal to top academic medical centers, with cutting-edge treatments and top thought leadership.

The research program uses the already in-place oncology research infrastructure and involves pharmacy, nursing, medicine, neuroscience, critical care and infectious disease departments of Morristown, Overlook, Chilton, Newton and Hackettstown medical centers.

"The team is passionate about helping patients," Dr. Schwarz-Miller said. "This is another phase of Atlantic Health System's leading role in the fight against COVID-19. We are confident that our large team of experts will continue to play a significant role in exploring solutions that will end this pandemic."

While actively based at Overlook and Morristown medical centers, the team works with the Western Region and Chilton Medical Center as needs arise. It is a passionate, determined and meticulous group that spans many medical disciplines.

"We are excited by the research opportunities that have arisen as a result of the COVID pandemic, and the opportunities they present to help our patients in the absence of approved or accepted, effective therapies," said Eric Whitman, MD, medical director, Atlantic Health System Cancer Care

"Many companies have approached us with drugs originally designed for other purposes, like lymphomas and graft-versus-host-disease after stem cell transplants, believing these agents might help avoid the “cytokine storm” that often leads to life-threatening complications in COVID-19 patients.”

Besides Dr. Whitman, the multidisciplinary group of investigators on these COVID trials includes Robert Roland, MD, Jason Kessler, MD, Angela Alistar, MD, Charles Farber, MD, PhD, Sophie Morse, MD, and Mohamad Cherry, MD.

Other companies have brought forward novel anti-viral drugs that directly attack or block the coronavirus itself, Dr. Whitman said.

Since late March, Atlantic Health System has opened five separate clinical trials. Four of the trials apply different methods to treat COVID-19 patients, and a fifth trial tests the immune systems of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 infection, in hopes of optimizing vaccine development in the future.  

More than 125 patients have been enrolled in these clinical trials to date. 

In addition, another seven to 10 clinical trials are in process, all from external sponsors from around the world, eager to have Atlantic Health System medical centers participate as clinical sites.  

By the end of May, the expectation is that Atlantic Health System will have doubled its COVID-19-related clinical trial menu and be able to present our patients and treating clinicians with many more options for therapy, and hopefully, better outcomes.

"For the past two months, New Jersey and Atlantic Health System, have had the misfortune of being at the epicenter of a pandemic due to a novel and potentially lethal virus," said John Halperin, MD. chair, Neuroscience, Atlantic Health System, who has been instrumental in setting up the studies and has lent a great deal of expertise to the group.

"At the same time the front-line nurses and physicians are working extraordinarily hard to save as many lives as possible, a multidisciplinary group from throughout the system is working with the Atlantic Center for Research and Atlantic Health System’s legal team, identifying the most promising experimental, therapeutic trials, clearing through extensive regulatory processes in record time.”

None of this would have been possible without teams in oncology research, research pharmacy, clinical research and trials and sponsored projects, as well as the institutional review board. They have been working tirelessly, interfacing with patients, families and treating physicians.