Atlantic Health creates COVID-19 Research Program, announces first study

Atlantic Health System announced Thursday it has launched a COVID-19 Research Program in an effort to find effective treatments and a potential vaccine for COVID-19.

The program, which will be run out of Morristown Medical Center and Overlook Medical Center, intends to partner with numerous academic medical centers and pharma companies around the country to do groundbreaking research.

The first study will be done in conjunction with TScan Therapeutics, a leading T cell therapeutics company in Waltham, Massachusetts. This study will be focused on identifying the precise way the human immune system recognizes and responds to infections such as COVID-19 or other diseases, like cancers.

Dr. Angela Alistar, principal investigator for Atlantic Health System, said the purpose of this study is to understand how immune cells mount an immune response to COVID-19. This knowledge, she said, will be used in an effort to develop new treatments, vaccines or diagnostics against COVID-19.

Dr. Eric Whitman, a co-director of the COVID-19 Research Program, said patients who have recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection have immune cells with the ability to recognize and attack the virus, but it is not clear how immune cells recognize COVID-19. He said TScan is leveraging its proprietary discovery platform to identify the precise epitopes recognized by T cells in COVID-19 recovered patients.

Alistar, medical director of the Breakthrough Treatment Center and of GI Medical Oncology at Morristown Medical Center, will serve as the principal investigator.

“Recovered patients, who choose to volunteer for the TScan clinical research study, will have a one-time blood sample collected so researchers can study how the patient’s T cells recognize and control the virus,” she said.

“The goal is to use this information to design effective vaccines that will generate appropriate T cell responses in people who have not yet been infected with the virus.”

Alistar said this research could be used to generate a vaccine, which should provide individuals with robust immunity against any potential future COVID-19 infection.

Whitman, who also serves as the medical director of Atlantic Health System Cancer Care, said he is proud of how quickly Atlantic Health was able to respond to the pandemic.

“Almost overnight, we have built a robust COVID-19 clinical research study,” he said. “The caliber of our research program is a result of the hard work and dedication of our physicians, staff, research team, external research partnerships and our reputation.”

The COVID Research Program was created when Atlantic Center for Research and Atlantic Health System Cancer Care recruited experts in research from the oncology, infectious diseases and research departments at Morristown and Overlook medical centers to form and conduct new studies focused on COVID-19.

Dr. Jan Schwarz-Miller, a co-director of the program and the chief medical and academic officer for Atlantic Health, said that, once the pandemic hit, the group volunteered to focus on getting a world-class COVID Research Program off the ground. Other departments soon joined in, including cardiac research, cystic fibrosis research and radiation therapy.

“The COVID Research Team is fast-tracking a broad range of exciting research studies and doing whatever they can to improve the quality of care for patients,” she said.

“Our research team has stepped forward, working long hours to make this happen and rapidly enrolling many of the region’s patients in our clinical trials.”

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