NCI COVID-19 Research Initiatives
NCI is contributing to the global effort to address COVID-19 by mobilizing its scientific experts and cutting-edge resources to conduct research on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. This research includes studies of antibodies to the virus, how the virus affects cancer patients, and factors that influence disease severity.
NCI supports clinical trials for COVID-19, some specifically for patients with cancer.
NCI COVID-19 Serology Program
NCI has launched many efforts to understand the immune response to COVID-19, funded by an emergency appropriation passed by Congress in April 2020 as part of the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act. The act provided NCI with additional funding beyond its cancer research base to develop, validate, improve, and implement serology testing and associated technologies to respond to the pandemic. Serology tests measure a person’s immune response to an infection in the form of antibodies in the blood.
The largest component of NCI’s serology initiatives is the Serological Sciences Network (SeroNet), which was established to support research on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and its impact on disease development and severity, as well as to increase the nation’s serological testing capacity. SeroNet is supporting research projects in basic and applied serological research related to COVID-19 at 13 universities; it also includes eight Serological Sciences Centers of Excellence, four Serological Sciences Network Capacity Building Centers, the HPV Serology Laboratory at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNLCR), and a coordinating center at FNLCR.
Staff in the HPV Serology Laboratory at FNLCR have also worked with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to validate SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests submitted to FDA by outside scientists and companies. The goal of this interagency collaboration is to ensure that test kits made available to the public accurately and reliably detect antibodies produced in response to infection with SARS-CoV-2. As of May 2021, more than 100 commercial assays have been evaluated.
The HPV Serology Lab staff have also developed assay standards to be used by laboratories conducting SARS-CoV-2 serology testing. One such standard, the Human SARS-CoV-2 Serology Standard (a pool of plasma from four donors with antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 spike and nucleocapsid proteins) is available by request to labs conducting COVID-19 antibody testing to enhance cross-study comparisons.
In collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and CDC, NCI has developed the COVID-19 Seroprevalence Studies Hub, or COVID-19 SeroHub. This online dashboard catalogs planned, ongoing, and completed studies assessing the proportion of people in the United States who have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their blood. COVID-19 SeroHub includes data from studies conducted in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Researchers, policymakers, and state and local public health officials can use COVID-19 SeroHub to facilitate evidence-based decision making, inform future studies, and identify scientific gaps and disparities.
The NCI Serology Program Clinical Translational Serology Task Force is bringing together various government organizations, academic groups, and industry partners to provide relevant tools and information related to serology testing to help decision makers manage the current and future status of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
NCI COVID-19 in Cancer Patients Study (NCCAPS)
NCI is conducting a large clinical cohort study of people with cancer who have COVID-19 that involves all of NCI’s clinical trials programs, including NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network and the NCI Community Oncology Research Program.
The study aims to enroll more than 2,000 patients of all ages and collect comprehensive documentation—such as their cancer type, the treatments they receive, and their symptoms—and follow them for an extended period to better understand SARS-CoV-2’s effect on people with cancer.
Genomic Studies of COVID-19 Outcomes
Researchers in NCI's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG) are involved in a series of studies to identify genetic variants that are associated with outcomes from COVID-19.
The COVIDcode Study is examining how variations in our genes may affect the severity of COVID-19 in different people. It is a collaboration between NCI, the National Human Genome Research Institute, and NIAID. The researchers hope to use findings from the study to develop therapies that reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms in some people. Anyone who has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection may be eligible to join.
COVNET is a large genome-wide association study to identify common and rare germline genetic variants associated with susceptibility to severe or fatal COVID-19 disease. To speed the sharing of data, the study is using an academic crowd-sourcing approach to accrue samples from as many as 40,000 people with COVID-19 from centers and studies throughout the United States and Canada.
Findings from both studies may inform how patients newly diagnosed with COVID-19 are triaged, suggest novel treatments, or identify segments of the population who may be at high risk of severe outcomes.
In the COVID-19 and Cancer Linkage (COVCan) Study, epidemiology researchers at NCI are collaborating with state health departments to assess the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization and death among cancer patients and survivors. The investigators are also working to identify patient characteristics and cancer sites that are most strongly associated with severe COVID-19 outcomes.
Studies of Other Risk Factors
A study is under way to study whether smoking status among patients with COVID-19 is associated with disease severity, complications, or mortality. The study is using the existing infrastructure for NCI’s Cancer Center Cessation Initiative (C3I). The goal is to recruit at least 5,000 people with COVID-19.
Search for COVID-19 Treatments
NCI is using some of the advances made via the RAS Initiative to try to identify new therapies for COVID-19. Researchers involved with the RAS Initiative used a screening library to identify chemical compounds that block the activity of mutated RAS proteins that drive tumor growth. That screening library is now being used to identify potential chemical compounds that can block the activity of a key enzyme that SARS-CoV-2 relies on to infect cells.
Compounds identified in these screens that block the activity of this enzyme will undergo additional testing and refinement, in collaboration with researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, to develop them into potential therapies for COVID-19.
Digital Health Solutions
NCI, in collaboration with the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), is funding seven companies and academic institutions to develop digital health solutions to help address the COVID-19 pandemic. These solutions could include user-friendly tools such as smartphone apps, wearable devices, and software that can identify and trace contacts of infected individuals, keep track of verified COVID-19 test results, and monitor the health status of infected and potentially infected individuals.