The first request came via email, asking if the Boettcher Foundation would be interested in funding a new personal protective equipment technology to fight COVID-19.
The date was one year ago today — March 23, 2020.
It was a one-off request, but we anticipated more would be coming. For decades, the Boettcher Foundation has supported biomedical research in Colorado, but never during a global pandemic that scientists only had begun testing for weeks earlier.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were less than 72 hours from Gov. Jared Polis issuing a stay-at-home order.
The question at the forefront of our minds: How much can one Colorado organization do to fight a pandemic? A year later, we offer this observation: Working together, organizations and Coloradans can achieve amazing things.
Boettcher’s history of stepping forward to help Colorado in times of crisis was needed as much as ever in early 2020. But launching a research fund normally takes months before funding lands in the hands of investigators. If we were going to have real impact, we needed structure, experts, and a condensed timeline.
Within days, the foundation’s Board of Trustees agreed that the unprecedented idea of a rapid-response request for proposals was what we had to do.
On April 7, 2020, Gov. Polis announced our $1 million COVID Biomedical Research Innovation Fund to help fight this and future pandemics. A month later, after Boettcher received more than 120 proposals, two select panels of experts agreed to support six projects from several of Colorado’s top research hospitals and universities.
The following researchers investigated a collective combination of risk factor assessment, treatment, testing, and vaccine development:
- James Crapo, MD, National Jewish Health and BioMimetix
- Elena Hsieh, MD, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Children’s Hospital Colorado
- Kara Mould, MD, National Jewish Health
- Rushika Perera, PhD; Brian Geiss, PhD; David Paterson, PhD, Colorado State University
- Theodore Randolph, PhD, University of Colorado Boulder and VitriVax
- Sue VandeWoude, DVM and Nicole Ehrhart, VMD, MS, Colorado State University
It was a Herculean effort, but “bench to bedside” is typically a long road, and science is nothing if not deliberate. The Boettcher Foundation has always believed that research funds can translate into outcomes that make a difference now, and for the future. In this case, the “now” really mattered.
So, today, a year down the road, as vaccination rates climb and death rates have fallen and the economy has survived a near total and sudden emergency shutdown, how did these investments turn out?
Focused research that moved rapidly in the face of a massive public threat made a lasting and meaningful difference. We more comprehensively understand the basic pathophysiology of the disease, its diagnosis, its prevention through both public health and vaccination, and the treatment of those sickened by the virus:
- Scientists have characterized the immune response to infection, developing blood tests that can help physicians judge the likely clinical outcome so they can determine how aggressive to be with treatments.
- Epidemiologists were able to demonstrate how effective testing, social distancing, and masks were in the reopening of a college campus – knowledge that was applicable to the reopening of numerous other institutional settings and helped keep us afloat as we waited for vaccines to arrive.
- Public health officials were able to test nursing staff in senior living facilities, enabling them to establish guidelines for the reopening of these facilities to the families of residents.
- Researchers demonstrated the ability to mass produce a thermally stable vaccine, a technology that offers vaccination hope to much of the underdeveloped world.
- An experimental drug was tested in a mouse model of the disease and found to decrease the severity of the cytokine storm – the event that kills those patients who respond severely to the infection, thus offering additional treatment options that may be of use if viral variants prove refractory to control via vaccination.
- A three-drug antiviral mixture was shown to reduce medication side effects on patients in clinical trials, adding to the therapeutic toolkit.
- Scientists have created biobanks of samples that can be used for years of additional study that will help in understanding, preventing, diagnosing, and treating the cases of the next pandemic.
In sum, these investments did make a difference — for the future and for the now. Lives have been and will be saved.
One organization can make a difference in fighting a pandemic. But one organization, however committed and focused, can only be as effective as the network of partners and people with whom it works. Our rapid deployment of funds had an impact because there were academic and medical researchers primed to step up and put the funds to work.
We made an impact because our state has invested – for generations – in a powerful biomedical research infrastructure at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University that operates in tandem with our state’s fine hospital systems. We made an impact because qualified students, technicians and caregivers were willing to put in long hours to help us learn more about what we were facing.
And just as we and our partners pulled together, so did Coloradans from every walk of life – in big ways and in countless small ones. Front line medical workers were undisputed heroes in the dark, early days when our hospitals were on the verge of being overwhelmed. Elected officials made tough decisions and people sacrificed – for their families but also for less fortunate strangers they hadn’t and would never meet.
As a result, Colorado navigated the difficult sociopolitical waters that churned around the pandemic better than most states – and for that, every Coloradan deserves thanks for being a part of that outcome.
The Boettcher family established the foundation 84 years ago because of a steadfast belief “in the promise of Colorado and the potential of Coloradans.” We think that of all the investments the foundation has made across our state over so many years, the Boettchers would have a special place in their heart for this one.
And they’d join us in telling you to accept our gratitude for your role in joining this fight. With the collective work and sacrifices among all of us, we helped our state to deliver on that promise and potential — together.
Tony Frank, a Boettcher Foundation trustee, is chancellor of the Colorado State University system. Katie Kramer is the president and CEO of the Boettcher Foundation.
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