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Regenstrief Institute, Inc. includes faculty investigators from the IU School of Medicine, IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI, Purdue University, and IUPUI.

Does COVID-19 pose a greater risk for cancer patients?

Using IU’s supercomputers and Slate storage systems, Dr. Brian Dixon and Dr. Nimish Valvi, at Regenstrief Institute, aspire to understand the impact COVID-19 has on cancer patients.

Dr. Brian Dixon, Director of Public Health Informatics, and Dr. Nimish Valvi, Postdoctoral Fellow, at the Regenstrief Institute, are working on a research project aimed at understanding the impact of COVID-19 on immunosuppressed cancer patients in Indiana. Specifically, they aspire to compare the outcomes of newly diagnosed cancer patients (i.e. since 2019) who become infected with COVID-19 and those who do not become infected with COVID-19. Their study, funded by the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, is using data available in medical records to inform the treatment and care for patients with cancer. They are not exposing cancer patients to COVID-19 or experimenting on individuals who have cancer. They are simply using Big Data to better understand cancer patients and their risks from COVID-19 infection.

Brian E. Dixon, PhD, Research Scientist, Director of Public Health Informatics, Regenstrief Institute, Inc. and Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI

The Slate Project environment is perfect for analyzing the larger datasets necessary to infer populations trends and outcomes. Storage helps with large datasets and performance helps us do our work quickly and efficiently.

Brian E. Dixon

Given that cancer treatment compromises the body's immune response, Dixon and Valvi felt cancer patients would be at higher risk for COVID-19 infection as well as complications from infection, including death. With limited data on cancer patients' experiences with COVID-19, Dixon and colleagues from the Fairbanks School of Public Health and the IU School of Medicine seek to explore the clinical and sociodemographic factors associated with COVID-19 infection and complication risk.

Regenstrief COVID-19 Dashboard, Screenshot of chart showing COVID-19 positive co-morbidity rates from 03/01/2020 to 07/22/2021

This is why Dixon and Valvi are looking at how COVID-19 is impacting this vulnerable population in Indiana. While a lot of emphasis has been placed on the effect that COVID-19 has on older adults, those 65 years and up, the average age of a cancer patient is 44 years old. Complications from COVID-19 affect younger populations with cancer the same as older populations that do not have cancer. Dixon's and Valvi’s research has shown that when cancer patients do get COVID-19, they are more likely to have severe consequences.

Computation speed is always a challenge with large retrospective observational studies like the one being conducted by Dixon and Valvi. Increasingly, team science requires analysis of large population data to guard against selection bias in smaller trials and studies. Dixon attests, "The Slate-Project environment is perfect for analyzing the larger datasets necessary to infer populations trends and outcomes. Storage helps with large datasets and performance helps us do our work quickly and efficiently."

Nimish Valvi, DrPH, MPH, Postdoctoral Fellow in Public and Population Health Informatics, Regenstrief Institute

Slate-Project allows the entire team to access the large datasets and contribute to developing, testing, and running the scripts they need for analysis on them. During the pandemic, they were all working from home and needed a remote platform with solid performance in which to do their work. Slate-Project provided this platform. Even with unstable or slow internet connections from their homes, team members could log in, work on the project, then log off and pick it up later.

The Biomedical Informatics field is under increasing pressure to analyze large-scale health data quickly to inform policy and develop populations-level interventions. Traditional methods are not sufficient to rapidly analyze data and deliver results to policymakers and public health leaders. Research methods and tools need to continuously evolve to keep up with the private industry to advance not only science, but also population health. Drs. Brian Dixon and Nimish Valvi are committed to improving their research methods and tools in order to better serve the population and to support public health.