2020 Clinical Investigator of the Year Awarded to Dimpy Shah, MD, PhD
Mays Cancer Center Annual Report
Epidemiologist Leading International Studies on COVID-19’s Threat to Patients with Cancer
As an expert in respiratory viruses, cancer epidemiology and survivorship, Dimpy Shah, MD, PhD, is the ideal individual to conduct research during the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of helping cancer patients.
Individuals with cancer are more likely to suffer from severe respiratory illness and higher death rates from COVID-19 than the general public, Dr. Shah explained. “As soon as SARS-Cov-2 was detected in the U.S., I knew we had to figure out how cancer patients are at risk, what therapies work, and how COVID-19 interacts with anti-cancer therapy,” she said.
Dr. Shah is an epidemiologist and a member of the Population Science and Prevention Program at the Mays Cancer Center. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.
On an international level, she is a member of the steering committee for The COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium (CCC19), which consists of 127 cancer centers. As the leader of CCC19’s Epidemiology Core and Committee, she provides research methodological expertise to ensure the highest standards in the design, implementation, monitoring, analysis, and interpretation of the data.
“We are analyzing data and performing research on patients with cancer who have been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Dr. Shah said. “CCC19 was the first to show how COVID-19 has affected cancer patients and who is at higher risk of complications from this infection. We have more than 20 ongoing projects examining different questions for providing evidence-based care for our patients.”
The consortium’s initial findings were published in May 2020 in the prestigious Lancet journal with Dr. Shah as co-first author. This research studied the outcomes of patients with cancer and COVID-19 and identified cancer and non-cancer associated risk factors for mortality and severe illness.
In July 2020, Dr. Shah also served as co-author of a second multi-institutional observational study published in the journal Cancer Discovery. This study compared the outcomes of patients with cancer and COVID-19 to the treatments they received.
Dr. Shah has been working on cancer and infectious diseases — especially respiratory viral infections — for more than a decade. She has published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles in topmost journals and presented more than 120 oral or poster presentations including more than 10 late-breaking abstracts, oral and poster presentations at national and international scientific meetings in 2020.
Her work with COVID-19 and cancer patients earned her the 2020 Clinical Investigator of the Year Award from the Mays Cancer Center. Robin Leach, PhD, Stanley and Sandra Rosenberg Chair in Urologic Research and director of the Mays Cancer Center Biorepository, nominated Dr. Shah for the award. Dr. Leach serves as associate director for education at the cancer center.
“In 2020 alone, Dr. Shah published seven cancer research articles in highly reputable journals that demonstrated cancer patients were three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the general public. The Lancet article was covered by more than 100 media outlets, including The Associated Press, CNN and The New York Times,” Dr. Leach said.
Gail Tomlinson, MD, PhD, co-leader of the Population Science and Prevention Program at the cancer center, also nominated Dr. Shah for this award. “Since joining UT Health San Antonio, Dr. Shah has made a very impressive and highly significant impact on cancer care both nationally and in our community through clinical research endeavors.
“For the consortium, she has provided ongoing exceptional systematic data analysis and direction for study design and analysis for more than 15 related projects. This has not only resulted in a tremendous amount of new knowledge for the very novel clinical entity of COVID-19 infection, but it is exceptionally vital for predicting and preventing morbidity and mortality in patients with cancer here and everywhere,” Dr. Tomlinson added.
While no one would wish for a global pandemic, Dr. Shah said COVID-19 raised society’s awareness of the life-threatening realities of respiratory viruses especially for those who also are battling cancer.
“For more than a decade, selected few paid attention to respiratory viruses in cancer patients. Because of COVID-19, people recognize it is a very serious challenge. This is not the last virus we will see. Because of changes in environment and global travel, it is not a question of if but when another pandemic comes along. It is very important that we continue this research and determine the short-term and long-term consequences with our population of patients. We need all the support we can get,” she said.
COVID 19 is an extreme case of a respiratory virus, she said. “It is very important to study because the immunocompromised patients don’t have enough cells in their immune system to fight it or the cells are defective. This can be because of cancer, chemotherapy or other supportive treatments such as steroids. Besides the immunocompromised status, cancer patients are more likely to be older and to have comorbidity (such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity) than the general population. These are all major risk factors for worse outcomes for someone infected with COVID-19,” she said.
Dr. Shah’s research on COVID-19 and cancer patients is continuing to evolve. “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated wide racial, political and socioeconomic chasm in the country. The current numbers suggest that without adequate vaccination in the underserved and economically disadvantaged communities, this gap will only widen.”
“We are using social media platforms to improve patient education and awareness. We also host these educational materials on our website,” she said.
Ruben A. Mesa, MD, FACP, executive director of the Mays Cancer Center and co-author of several publications with Dr. Shah, said, “She was recruited from MD Anderson Cancer Center to develop our center’s epidemiology research program. I am thrilled to say that she has proven clinical research excellence beyond our expectations and is the most deserving candidate for the 2020 Clinical Investigator of the Year Award. Her contributions to clinical research studies and dedicated service to reduce the burden of preventable deaths in patients with cancer in the context of COVID-19 pandemic and beyond are an embodiment of our center’s clinical, research, education, and service mission.”
Twitter: https://twitter.com/COVID19nCCC; @DrDimpyShah