Trauma Care Researcher, Christopher Tignanelli, MD, Studying Possible COVID-19 Treatment

Dr. Christopher Tignanelli

An idea from his Minnesota-native wife originally motivated Christopher Tignanelli, MD, to consider the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” while searching for the perfect opportunity in the field of medicine. That’s when he discovered the University of Minnesota Medical School.

“I realized they had a really storied Department of Surgery with very well-known names in the trauma division. Not many programs can say they have multiple national names,” Dr. Tignanelli said. “The University of Minnesota has a long track record of securing public funding for research, and I was excited to join.”

In 2017, the Medical School hired Dr. Tignanelli as an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, where his expertise today is benefitting trauma patients—both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Improving Emergency Care for Trauma Patients

As co-director of the Minnesota Critical Care Outcomes Research Effort (MN CCORE) at the University, Dr. Tignanelli’s research focuses on implementing strategies that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and health informatics to improve healthcare workers’ adherence to evidence-based practice. It’s research that he hopes will change an unfortunate statistic.

“In trauma, 20% of deaths are preventable, meaning we could’ve done something different that would have potentially saved that person’s life,” he said. “One of the largest contributors to trauma deaths is in the EMS (emergency medical services) setting.”

Dr. Tignanelli and his team started there, developing an AI system that could autonomously read EMS records from local hospitals to determine if patients received the best care available. The concept worked, which was recently published in the “Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.”

“Our ultimate goal is to put this AI into real-time, so that, for example, while you’re taking care of a patient, it will remind you, ‘Hey, think about putting a breathing tube in,’” Dr. Tignanelli said. “The next phase of our research will be to scale the concept to 40,000 records, so that we can optimize the system’s predictive algorithms.”

Improving Care for COVID-19 Patients

It didn’t take long for the Medical School to actively respond to COVID-19, and Dr. Tignanelli played a key role in several of its early efforts. In February, while helping piece together an evidence-based medicine website that equips providers with the latest COVID-19-related literature, he and his team recognized a drug with the potential to treat the virus—losartan.

“Within a month, me and co-principal investigator Michael Puskarich, MD, wrote two protocols, got FDA approval, wrote IRB approval, built a team and received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” Dr. Tignanelli said. “This is normally a six-month or longer process.”

In April, the team launched two clinical trials—one outpatient and one inpatient—to determine if losartan can prevent hospitalization or lung injury. As the trial continues to enroll volunteers, Dr. Tignanelli is also using his expertise in AI and health informatics to help develop an algorithm that can read chest X-rays and diagnose COVID-19 in a new way. So far, his team’s research shows it is 98% effective.

“The biggest hope is that we save lives and that our research results in improved care and outcomes for patients with COVID-19,” he said. “Our team is big—too many to even name—and is working around the clock. We just feel like this is our duty.”

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