covid-19 sleuths

Houston school offers COVID-19 'disease detective' online course

Learn how to contact trace COVID-19 with UH's new, online course. Photo by Getty Images

As the nationwide battle against COVID-19 surges on, the University of Houston is launching a free new program to train locals how to identify and warn potentially exposed individuals throughout the region.

The new contact tracing and case identification certificate program — dubbed Epi Corps for Epidemiology Corps — is meant to train up a new type of so-called "disease detective" to combat coronavirus. The 12-hour, online course is currently open to UH students, faculty, and staff — and will soon be made available to the general public, according to the university.

This comes as the Houston Health Department last week announced plans to add 300 new contact tracers in addition to the 300 disease detectives Harris County Public Health plans to recruit. More than 100,000 trained contact tracers will be needed across the country to address COVID-19, according to a report by Johns Hopkins University. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to reopen the state calls for some 4,000 contact tracers to be hired statewide by mid-May.

The goal for the Epi Corps training program is to be scaled statewide, as Texas lags in per-capita testing for coronavirus, ranking 47th out of 50 states. "We really do not have a good handle on how many people have been exposed or how many people are asymptomatic carriers, making contact tracing critically important," said program organizer, Bettina Beech, in a statement.

Contact tracing is considered crucial in the fight against COVID-19, teamed with social distancing, stay-at-home mandates, and good hygiene practices. The Center for Disease Control warns if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.

Through this new program, the corps staffers could be deployed to work on-site at the city and county health departments to assist COVID-19 patients recall everyone they've had close contact with leading up to their infection. The contact tracers would then notify those contacts of their potential exposure and provide education, support, and information to understand their risk.

The contact tracers-in-training will be trained on COVID-19 signs and symptoms, epidemiology, medical terminology, cultural competency, interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, patient confidentiality, and more, according to the school. Those who successfully complete the course will receive a digital certificate, and some students will be eligible to earn credit hours.

The Epi Corps curriculum will be administered via the Blackboard digital learning platform. Plans are moving forward to make a shorter program available to the community at large, including small businesses, in the coming weeks.

The training follows a format similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and is based on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials contact tracing training modules, according to UH.

"Contact tracing, along with large-scale testing, is a critical component to reopening our state and to stimulate the economy, but the national and local public health infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle this task alone," said Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in a statement. "As a public university dedicated to serving the community, it's incumbent upon us to step up and provide the necessary training so we can get through this crisis together."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Allterum Therapeutics Inc., a portfolio company of Fannin Innovation Studio, is using the funds to prepare for clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

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