Being able to innovate and adapt has become essential in 2020.
New questions are formed faster than answers can be provided as top researchers, doctors and governments scramble to solve the world’s biggest problem – how to win the battle against COVID-19 – and everyone tries to be flexible amid isolation, looming dangers and constant changes.
Dr. Meghan Azad and her team have adapted immeasurably as they’ve adjusted their current research studies during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as begun a new study to help understand the deadly virus and its impact on Canadian children and families.
The research scientist at Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba (CHRIM) is part of a team of national researchers conducting the CHILD Cohort study, which is following nearly 3,500 children and their families from before birth to school age and beyond. The goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the origins of early childhood diseases, including asthma and allergies. When COVID hit, the team was midway through the eighth year of research and had to halt and then modify clinical visits and collection of data and samples. But Azad, who is co-lead of the CHILD Manitoba site along with Dr. Elinor Simons, and the other researchers also realized there was an incredible opportunity here. They had years of pre-pandemic data and samples, and a large group of children and their families across the country who were committed to helping expand the research during and after the pandemic.
“As a researcher, as soon as this pandemic hit, I thought ‘what can I do to contribute?’ And so here is something we can do within our study. And the families felt the same way – they thought, ‘this is a massive world issue; what can we do?’ This is something they can do to contribute to the greater good,” says Azad.
While it’s impossible to know who will become infected by COVID-19, there may be participants within the CHILD study who develop symptoms and test positive for the virus. The CHILD study is fortunate to have been collecting data on participants throughout their lives, which includes their immune profiles, genetics and microbiome. Unlike a new study that does not have background data for comparison, CHILD study has a powerful opportunity to examine the factors that predispose or protect children from COVID-19.
The researchers were awarded a $1.7 million grant from Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), co-funded by Research Manitoba and the Canadian COVID Immunity Task Force, to adapt the study to better understand the prevalence and predictors of the SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“Canadians have been profoundly impacted by COVID-19 and the public health measures put into place to reduce community spread of the virus,” says Dr. Azad, co-lead of the CHILD Manitoba site along with Dr. Elinor Simons. “Our project will study why some people infected with the virus become seriously ill, while others do not, and will help us identify risk factors for infection. We will also look at how physical distancing and school and business closures have affected mental health and well-being, especially in children. These are urgent questions that must be answered quickly to help control subsequent waves of transmission and minimize the unintended consequences of pandemic management policies.”
A primary goal of this funding opportunity is to rapidly translate this crucial information so it can help immediately.
“This is an unprecedented time in research when getting the results fast is really important, so we’ve engaged people on our team from public health authorities in each participating province and nationally, to be able to get the information to them as quickly as possible and to have their opinion up front as to what is important for them to know,” says Dr. Azad.
As an epidemiologist (a scientist who studies population health and diseases), biochemist and associate professor and Canada Research Chair in the developmental origins of chronic disease at the University of Manitoba, Dr. Azad is well equipped to conduct this research. This vital work will help governments understand COVID-19, and what kind of impact it is having on stress levels and the economy, and help governments plan better.
Dr. Azad is quick to mention that this is a team effort and she’s just one of many working quickly to help understand this new virus.
“Of course, the real heroes of this study are the families and the children who participate,” says Dr. Azad. The children in the study are now between eight and 12 years of age, and primarily live in Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
The pandemic has also opened the door to new research for Dr. Azad. She is one of the researchers co-leading the International Perinatal Outcomes in the Pandemic (iPOP) study, along with CHRIM Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Merilee Brockway and colleagues in the UK and Australia. One of the interesting observations during the pandemic is that preterm birth – the leading cause of infant mortality worldwide – has seen unprecedented reductions during the pandemic in some settings. The iPOP study is evaluating this global trend and trying to identify the underlying causes, which could lead to new strategies to improve perinatal outcomes after the pandemic. This global study has over 75 collaborators across 37 countries participating, and has secured funding from the International COVID-19 Data Alliance.
If that wasn’t enough, Dr. Azad is also leading projects that primarily focus on breastmilk and how it influences gut bacteria (microbiome) development. She was awarded a prestigious $6.5 million grant from The Bill & Melinda Gate’s Foundation to establish the International Milk Composition (IMiC) Consortium, a global health initiative dedicated to breast milk. This invaluable project, led by Azad in partnership with CHRIM’s Natalie Rodriguez, has the potential to be one of the most impactful breast milk studies ever.
Dr. Azad is certainly keeping busy during this already stressful time, but she knows first-hand the benefits of research studies. The scientist was introduced to health research when, after being diagnosed with asthma, she wanted to help others and became a study participant herself at 12 years old.
She has been with CHRIM for six years and credits the friendly and engaging environment for inspiring her each day. “The power behind CHRIM is that we can make observations in the clinical setting and then walk down the hall and ask a basic scientist to test that observation in the lab.”
While the world tries to cope with the pandemic and its barrage of stress and changes, Dr. Azad is adapting quickly and efficiently to help us understand this virus and its long-term effects. Hopefully with the help of the CHILD Cohort families, our improved understanding of COVID-19 will contribute to the fight against the pandemic and to the safety of children and families worldwide.