Dr. Daniela Bota, UCI’s vice dean for clinical research.

UCI Health research leads fight against COVID-19

by Greg Hardesty

As COVID-19 began to spread earlier this year, UCI Health clinicians were among the nation’s first to begin working on possible therapies to tame the virus.

The prior summer, after three years of planning, the UCI Center for Clinical Research (CCR) opened.

It heralded a new era in UCI Health’s efforts to expand access to breakthrough therapies as quickly and safely as possible by accelerating clinical trials – research studies that seek ways to prevent, detect and treat diseases.

“This was extremely timely,” says Dr. Daniela Bota, vice dean for clinical research and medical director of the CCR, which now has 75 principal investigators and 120 clinical researchers on staff. “When COVID-19 hit, we had some advantages.”

Seeking treatments and a vaccine

By May 1, UCI Health became one of the country’s first designated sites to begin conducting research into an antiviral drug (Remdesivir) as a potential therapy for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Since then, UCI Health has launched five more clinical trials, Bota says. One involves developing an inhaler to keep patients off ventilators. Another examines ways to prevent UCI Health workers from getting sick. Yet another study assesses the efficacy of convalescent plasma – plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 – injected into sick patients.

“There are more (COVID-19) clinical trials on the way,” says Bota, adding that one involves working with a local company to develop a vaccine.

Research hospital

Most clinical trials at research hospitals take six to nine months to launch, Bota says. But at UCI, that time has been slashed to three months or less because the process is so centralized.

As Orange County’s only designated academic medical center, clinical trials are one of the things that sets UCI Health apart from other hospitals in Orange County.

“We had this structure, and we had established relations with the majority of big pharmaceutical companies,” Bota says of UCI Health being prepared for COVID-19 clinical trials. “Second, we had a single point of contact. And third, we had a well-oiled system in which studies were already staffed and defined.”

Although the pandemic has put a focus on COVID-19 clinical trials, CCR’s current portfolio of industry-funded interventional clinical trials – those involving patients receiving experimental therapies – now numbers some 300 research studies involving 12 departments.

This ensures UCI Health will continue to have a big impact, not only here in Irvine, but around the world.