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New OU Research Could Inform Treatment of COVID-19

NORMAN, OKLA. – Because COVID-19 is a brand-new virus, physicians did not have an established protocol for treating patients as the pandemic began to spread. However, a collaboration between researchers and physicians at the University of Oklahoma and OU Medicine provides a better understanding of how computed tomography imaging can guide the current and future treatment of COVID-19.

“OU research is dedicated to excellence in life sciences research that creates solutions to global challenges and improves the future of human health. When multiple academic disciplines and areas of expertise converge, new ideas and approaches emerge. This partnership between engineers and physicians demonstrates the power of interdisciplinary research in bringing about such solutions,” said OU vice president for research and partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia.

Medical imaging researchers in the Gallogly College of Engineering on the OU Norman campus partnered with a radiologist at OU Medicine to publish a review article in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine about CT’s role in determining the severity of the disease and guiding patients’ course of treatment. OU’s new journal article compiles evidence about CT use among health care providers around the world.

“One of our research focuses is X-ray imaging,” said the article’s author, Hong Liu, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Through this review article, we sought to provide an understanding of the role of CT so that researchers can develop new and better imaging technologies for COVID-19.”

An interdisciplinary approach was important for this study. Liu, along with colleagues Molly Wong, Ph.D., and Yuhua Li, Ph.D., paired their imaging expertise with OU Medicine radiologist Theresa Thai, M.D., who provided medical knowledge and experience reading CTs.

Their study shows the general patterns of COVID-19 infection. Early hallmarks of the disease are the development of ground-glass opacities, which are hazy shapes in otherwise healthy lungs, Thai said. Middle stages of the infection are characterized by “crazy paving,” a continued spread of densities that mimic disorganized paving stones, and later stages see an increased consolidation of those patterns.

Although these CT findings can be found in other lung conditions, studies of COVID-19 generally concur that the disease follows this trajectory.

Commercial CT system at SRTC

“For physicians, CT scans can help determine which patients need to be hospitalized as opposed to those who can stay at home and recuperate,” Thai said. “And among patients who are hospitalized, CT helps determine which need to be in the ICU as opposed to a regular hospital floor.”

The OU study will also serve as a road map for medical imaging researchers across the world as they use their expertise to improve imaging technology for patients with COVID-19. The next frontier is artificial intelligence, in which the computer identifies areas of concern that the radiologist can further examine and confirm, Thai said.

“The potential for pattern recognition in imaging is exciting,” Thai said. “The goal is for the computer to highlight suspicious areas so that radiologists can spend their time on those areas as opposed to findings that are more incidental.”

Liu’s laboratory focuses on cancer imaging, but in response to OU’s call for research on COVID-19, he and his colleagues are closely monitoring the disease to see if they can further contribute through their expertise in engineering sciences. Liu said interdisciplinary research is a core component of the university’s research programs.

“Interdisciplinary collaborations are important to make advances in health care,” Liu said. “As engineers in medical imaging, we can develop new technologies, but until we work closely with clinicians, talking with them and understanding their needs, those instruments will otherwise be useless tools. However, as we have close collaborations between engineering and clinical services, those tools can become useful to clinical practice and can save lives.”

Thai emphasizes the same benefit of partnerships that move discoveries from the “research bench to the patient bedside.”

“We are working toward the same outcome, just from different vantage points,” Thai said. “As physicians, we can’t do what we do without researchers developing their technologies, and they need our perspective about where they should focus their research so that it benefits patients. We have the same overall goal of helping patients.”