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Sunnybrook researchers awarded grants in second round of community-supported COVID-19 funding competition

October 9, 2020

Seven more grants have been awarded to research projects in a second round of funding from the COVID-19 Research Initiative, an internal funding opportunity created by Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) and funded by the Sunnybrook Foundation through the generosity of donors who supported the COVID-19 Response Fund.

The competition provides grants of up to $150K to COVID-19 research projects which aim to make a quick and substantive impact in better understanding the virus or the challenges posed by the pandemic. More than 100 COVID-related studies have been initiated at Sunnybrook since the pandemic began, with over 80 of them already underway. Thanks to the continued generosity of the community, a second round of the funding competition was initiated in August to help support the significant research response at SRI.

Congratulations to all the recipients. Learn more about their projects below.

Optimizing COVID-19 rehabilitation

A new research project is working to develop a set of recommendations that can guide Canadian health care organizations as they provide rehabilitation to COVID-19 patients.

“Rehab is a key component of the COVID care pathway that can improve functional capacity, reverse deconditioning effects after prolonged ICU stays and equip patients with support throughout recovery,” says the study’s principal investigator Dr. Marina Wasilewski, a scientist in the St. John’s Rehab Research Program. “But little research has explored how to build rehabilitation capacity and optimize the COVID care pathway.”

Dr. Wasilewski’s research team will aim to qualitatively capture the perspectives of health care professionals, patients and families as they develop their set of recommendations. They’ll also analyze national datasets and patient charts to provide a comprehensive profile of the COVID-19 rehab patient. “St. John’s is uniquely positioned as part of Sunnybrook to conduct this research, and our hope is that we can help improve the rehab pathway for COVID-19 patients across the province and beyond.”

A new approach to cardiac imaging for the follow-up assessment of COVID-19 patients

Co-principal investigators Dr. Christine Démoré and Dr. David Goertz, both scientists in the physical sciences platform are launching a study to better visualize one of the unexpectedly frequent effects of COVID-19 – heart damage.

“Early reports have indicated that many COVID-19 patients have inflammation of the heart, which in turn affects heart function,” says Dr. Démoré. “The inflammation results in abnormal heart motion, which changes how efficiently the heart pumps blood to the body. Understanding how efficiently the heart is working is important for managing the long-term health of patients with COVID-19, and may also help determine how we treat patients in the acute stage of the illness.”

In healthy, efficient hearts, the blood flowing into the chambers forms a vortex-like pattern, and is thought to play a crucial role in cardiac function. However, current ultrasound technologies used for echocardiography cannot yet image fast enough to capture these “vortex dynamics”.

“In collaboration with Drs. Idan Roifman, Meaghan O'Reilly and Peter Burns at Sunnybrook and Dr. Olivier Villemain at SickKids, we’re developing a new form of ultrafast echocardiography to better visualize heart failure,” says Dr. Goertz. The resulting imaging system has the potential to rapidly impact the management of large numbers of acute and recovered COVID-19 patients with cardiac complications.

Assessing COVID-19’s impact on the cancer system

A team of researchers led by Dr. Antoine Eskander, associate scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program and adjunct scientist at ICES, is investigating the impact of the pandemic on Ontario’s short-term cancer activity.

“During the recovery phase of the pandemic, surgical activity will need to address the backlog of urgent surgical patients that were not treated during the height of the pandemic, but we anticipate there will also be subsequent ramp down periods due to second waves of the pandemic,” says Dr. Eskander. “There is an urgent need for information on how we can best serve cancer patients during this time and after.”

The research team aims to measure changes in cancer surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy prior to and during the pandemic and also assess shifts in other resources used for cancer care – including imaging, virtual care, and hospital admissions. “This information will be used to inform current policies and predict the needs for rebuilding cancer care delivery in the province and beyond,” says Dr. Eskander.

How did the absence of care partners impact surgery patients’ care during COVID-19?

A new study, led by Dr. Lesley Gotlib Conn, associate scientist in the Tory Trauma Research Program is investigating the impact of the absence of care partners for surgery patients in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the onset of the pandemic, a number of public health measures were put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, including enforcing strict no-visitor policies in hospitals. We know this likely resulted in unintended consequences for surgical patients and health care staff, but we’d like to better evaluate how,” says Dr. Gotlib Conn.

The research team will conduct interviews with surgical patient care partners and health care team members to understand how the no-visitor policy impacted the post-operative experiences of care partners and health care teams. They will also examine the virtual communication experiences of teams and care partners and identify best practices in family-centred communication.

The team’s research will eventually inform an actionable, data-driven blueprint for health care teams, surgical patients and their families during COVID-19.

Understanding COVID-19 “Long Hauler” syndrome

Dr. Rob Kozak, a clinical microbiologist and affiliate scientist in the Integrated Community Program, is launching a new study to better define the group of COVID-19 patients who experience symptoms for 90 days or longer, commonly referred to as “long-haulers.”

“Studies out of Italy have demonstrated that as many as 55 per cent of patients still report three or more symptoms of COVID after 60 days, but little is understood about chronic COVID-19 syndrome,” says Dr. Kozak. “We’re looking to further characterize this group by understanding their biochemical, microbiological and immunologic make-up. This will include developing a diagnostic criteria for these patients, as well as a set of immune markers that may explain their clinical presentation,” says Dr. Kozak.

To do this, the research team will study patients who are still reporting COVID-19 symptoms at 90-days through the use of surveys, chart reviews and laboratory investigations, including advanced cell analysis techniques. The research team will also develop a pre-clinical model of COVID-19 persistence, allowing them to test therapies and interventions.

Dr. Kozak says, “the study has the potential to help clinicians, patients and the general public recognize post-COVID-19 complications, a first step towards further understanding the long-term natural history of the virus.”

Assessing the mental health needs of Ontarians during the pandemic

Dr. Anthony Levitt, scientist and chief of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences program has launched a study to explore Ontarians’ current mental health and addictions needs in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The COVID-19 crisis has created profound psychological stress for society and our study aims to assess what supports are needed now,” says principal investigator Dr. Levitt.

The research project will survey a representative sample of 7,500 Ontarians at three points in time – baseline, six months and twelve months. The findings will demonstrate impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of Ontarians, as well as specific needs for different groups and regions across the province.

Dr. Levitt underscores the timely importance of the research, “With this data, we’ll be able to inform short and long-term plans to actively improve the mental health and well-being of Ontarians.”

Investigating COVID-19’s impact on the brain

A team of researchers led by Dr. Simon Graham, a senior scientist in the physical sciences platform, is studying how COVID-19 impacts the brain.

“We know from early case reports in China that about 30 to 40 per cent of hospitalized patients had neurological symptoms,” says Dr. Graham, the study’s principal investigator. “Symptoms included headaches, confusion, and stroke. Loss of smell was also common, which in the absence of any nasal congestion suggests that the virus may affect brain regions that control our sense of smell.

Dr. Graham, alongside his research team at Sunnybrook and collaborators at Baycrest, is studying the neurological impact of COVID-19 through the use of clinical assessments and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain in recovered COVID-19 patients. "In addition to raising awareness of this issue among doctors and in the public,” says Dr. Graham, “the study will also allow us to direct patients in need towards neurointerventions and treatments as early as possible.” Learn more about the study here.