The NHLBI has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to address the pandemic, especially to understand risk factors that affect susceptibility and outcomes in COVID-19, and to develop treatments to stop its punishing effects on the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Within the biomedical field, the NHLBI community has stretched its capacity for innovation — conducting lifesaving research at an unprecedented speed in a new, largely virtual workspace. COVID-19 has also laid bare the health inequities that have long affected communities of color in the United States. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 remain higher among African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Hispanics/Latinos, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, compared with whites. These disparities have prompted swift, trans-NIH efforts to reduce the burden of COVID-19 on our hardest-hit populations through community-engaged research.
As we enter 2021, the NHLBI will continue to be nimble in our response to the scientific demands of the pandemic, even as we remain committed to the research priorities outlined in our Strategic Vision. Despite the toll of COVID-19, we are optimistic that our research and engagement efforts will “pay it forward” and help us overcome or even avert future public health challenges for years to come.
Key to the NHLBI’s response has been swiftly leveraging our existing assets, including our talented investigators around the country and at the NIH. For example, in July, we mobilized our clinical trial networks to refocus a portion of their efforts on COVID-19 studies under the Collaborating Network of Networks for Evaluating COVID-19 and Therapeutic Strategies (CONNECTS). CONNECTS includes more than 30 such networks supporting trials that can adapt quickly as promising new treatments emerge. And in September, we launched the Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities, which aims to reach the hardest-hit communities with vital information about COVID-19 research, prevention, testing, and treatment. Long before COVID-19, our staff and extramural investigators had been working to address health disparities in these communities, effectively laying the foundation for CEAL.
We have continued to invest in the Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine (TOPMed) program, which has amassed nearly four petabytes of de-identified genomic, clinical, imaging, and environmental data from more than 161,000 participants in 80 diverse studies, including the NHLBI’s landmark Framingham Heart Study, the Jackson Heart Study, the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, and many others.
TOPMed and other datasets are now available to qualified researchers through a secure, cloud-based platform called the BioData Catalyst. The BioData Catalyst includes tools for analyzing large datasets and sharing results among users in real time. It also provides a virtual collaborative workspace that makes data findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable to all qualified researchers, the vast majority of whom lack their own data science resources.
In 2021, we will continue to address the high rates of maternal morbidity and mortality among American women of all ages, and look for ways to move evidence-based interventions into communities where the burden of chronic disease is high.
Throughout this difficult time, I have been heartened by the resolve and ingenuity of the NHLBI community, and grateful for close collaboration with our partner organizations. The NHLBI has relied on your expertise and activities to keep policymakers, researchers, patients, and the public informed about the latest NHLBI findings and broader NIH efforts to fight this pandemic. We appreciate your tireless efforts to keep us informed about the challenges your communities face, as well as your suggestions for the best ways to remain responsive. Thank you for your partnership in this extraordinary time.
The NHLBI has continued to prioritize investigator-initiated research and to provide targeted support for early-stage investigators (ESIs). Under our funding and operating guidelines, we have consistently set a higher payline for ESIs than for established investigators, which has enabled us to maintain ESI success rates near 30 percent. In 2019 and 2020, we developed new opportunities for ESIs and trainees to conduct research on heart, lung, and blood disorders. For example, our BioData Catalyst Fellows Program is supporting more than 30 uniquely skilled individuals, many of them ESIs, to explore this new data ecosystem and refine it for future users.
The NHLBI also has initiated Challenge competitions to encourage researchers from diverse fields and different career stages to address pressing needs in heart, lung, blood, and sleep research. For example, the NHLBI Big Data Analysis Challenge in heart failure called upon researchers to mine data from past and ongoing heart failure studies in an effort to define subtypes of adult heart failure and identify new subtype-specific approaches to managing the disease.