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UCI Health Affairs Update

Section 1

April 6, 2020

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Dear colleagues, 

I could not be more proud to be an Anteater. It is a time of great stress as we care for our first COVID-19 patients and prepare for the apex of the curve in just a few short weeks. Our front-line caregivers, and all those who are helping friends and neighbors in the community, are standing together in service. They are not alone in this fight. Faculty, staff and students from every part of UCI are devoting their time and creativity. This is the true power of an academic medical center where taking care of others, especially the most vulnerable among us, is bolstered by the innovative inquiry and nimble responsiveness of a modern research university. Of the scores of examples, I will share a few today.

Ventilators are needed to care for many hospitalized COVID-19 patients but there are not enough across the United States to care for the large numbers of patients with respiratory failure admitted during surge conditions. To address the need, UCI Health otolaryngologist Dr. Brian Wong and anesthesiologist Dr. Govind Rajan partnered with Tom Milner, acting director of the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic, to design and build what they call a “bridge” ventilator that is an inexpensive, quick-to-manufacture device for intensive care units that have employed all their standard ventilators. It is now under review by the FDA.

There is an urgent need to develop effective therapies to treat active disease in COVID-19 patients. At UCI, Dr. Alpesh Amin, chair of the Department of Medicine, and Dr. Lanny Hsieh, a specialist in infectious diseases, are leading a clinical trial of the investigational antiviral drug remdesivir, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Remdesivir is considered promising because it has previously been tested in humans with Ebola and has shown promise in animal models for treating MERS and SARS, which are also coronavirus diseases that emerged in 2012 and 2002, respectively. The randomized, placebo-controlled trial will provide the clinical data required to assess the effectiveness of the medication and side-effects.

The COVID-19 virus binds to cell surface proteins where they are processed by host proteases and this allows the virus to enter and hijack the internal cellular pathways in order to replicate and emerge in greater numbers. UCI chemistry professor Rachel Martin,  an expert in understanding how proteins function in living organisms, and her research team are working to develop a protease inhibitor that will prevent cellular  infection at its very first step. This approach has succeeded against previous viruses, including HIV, so it bears great promise. Other faculty across UCI are looking at each step from binding to release, developing molecular models, performing chemical syntheses, and creating new tests, and reaching out to work together to move projects forward quickly. 

Another critical need is for personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect healthcare providers on the front lines. UCI medical students kicked off a supply drive to help healthcare workers this week. The drive was organized by Jaspal Bassi, who received the help of more than 45 other medical students in this effort. The collection of these supplies will repeat every Saturday in April in the parking lot next to the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute on the UCI campus. In addition to PPE and sanitizer that are needed in the coming weeks, the medical students are helping to ease the burden on caregivers by walking dogs, babysitting and grocery shopping. Kudos to Jaspal and his fellow students.

On a related note, the faculty on campus have been scouring their labs and workspaces for PPE to donate to the medical center. They have also done a terrific job – and we are all very grateful.

Finally, let me share a preview of something that is happening next week. Faculty from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering have led an interdisciplinary team in the development, testing and production of a face shield that not only meets the necessary medical form, fit and functional requirements identified by hospital staff, but is inexpensive enough to be disposed after each patient interaction, the primary request from clinicians. Medical staff tested the prototypes to ensure that health system requirements were met. Upon that success, full-scale production began, and what started out as a small-scale 3D printing production of parts and assembly was transformed into a robust production operation at the University Partner Lab at UCI Beall Applied Innovation. It is expected that a first shipment of 5,000 masks will be delivered to the medical center in a few days.

These are a few compelling demonstrations of the unique strengths of UCI and the tripartite mission of health affairs -- to discover, to teach and to heal -- and the seamless synergy we enjoy across the university from our undergraduate classrooms to our ICUs. The mission is also a bond that brings together the best minds to deliver leading-edge healthcare to Orange County, the state of California, and to the nation. Innovation is in our DNA.

In closing, I want to congratulate Chad Lefteris on his appointment as CEO of UCI Health. We have worked together for well more than a year, and I want to share my confidence that Chad is just the right person to lead UCI Health now through this COVID-19 crisis, ensuring that our frontline caregivers have the tools and resources they need to provide exemplary care during the pandemic, and also in the future as a critical member of the health affairs leadership team that is bringing patient-centered, team-based, integrative healthcare to the nation.

I welcome your thoughts and comments. You can reach me at VCHA@health.uci.edu.

Stay strong. Stay well.

Steve A. N. Goldstein, MA, MD, PhD, FAAP

Vice Chancellor, Health Affairs | University of California, Irvine 

Distinguished Professor | Departments of Pediatrics and Physiology & Biophysics

Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences