Google’s philanthropy entity called Google.org awarded $500,000 to investigators at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to study how COVID-19 alters gene expression in some people that could potentially be linked to risk of severe illness and death. The research focuses on the analyzing blood samples from over 4,000 research participants in the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort—along the Texas-Mexico border. This county has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the United States. The group seeks to contribute to scientific knowledge as to why COVID-19 can wreak havoc on so many various systems within the body.
An ‘Unprecedented Study’
According to Kari North, a professor of epidemiology working at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, thanks to Google funding an “unprecedented” study can move forward. According to University of North Carolina news covered by Jennie Saia, this study enables the comparison of RNA from blood collected over years from the same individuals both before, and after COVID-19 infection. The investigators will be able to actually compare the RNA expression profiles for each participant—both those infected by SARS-CoV-2 and those not infected.
The researchers will target the collection of RNA samples and health assessments from 250 cohort participants infected by COVID-19 and 250 uninfected controls; the team hopes to complete the entire study within one year.
This funding is part of Google.org’s $100 million commitment to support COVID-19 relief efforts by a range of institution from research centers and universities to non-government organizations (NGOs) hitting vulnerable populations.
Why is this Comparison of RNA Expression Important?
According to Professor North, “The identification of changes in gene expression associated with COVID-19 infection and severity will contribute to global knowledge of the biology of SARS-CoV-2.
Jennifer “Piper” Below, an associate professor of medicine in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine emphasizes the key to this study, noting, “We really don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which COVD-19 is able to wreak so much havoc on so many different systems within the body.” Professor Below also serves as the principal investigator for the study.
Below emphasizes the importance of identifying the specific molecular pathways disrupted by SARS-CoV-2 with a goal of identifying “a window into developing targeted therapeutics and pharmaceuticals that could potentially prevent such negative consequences.”
The team will employ research talent as well as machine learning and other AI to scan the genome for changes in gene expression probing for evidence of change due to SARS-CoV-2 infection as well as association to associated challenges such as severe respiratory illness and other possible life threatening complications, reports Ms. Saia.
The Cameron County Hispanic Cohort
Led by Dr. Susan Fisher-Hoch and Dr. Joseph McCormick, founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, Texas. The pair are known as the “virus hunters” for work done in targeting Ebola and other viral research in the 1980s in Africa.
A collaboration started seven years ago, this cohort was established to study the high rates of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease in Mexican-Americans living in Cameron County. With the onset of COVID-19 the researchers suggested there could be value in comparing the biological samples collected previously to those after SARS-COV-2 and associated impacts in the body.
Analysis at VANTAGE
UNC-Chapel Hill and VUMC researchers will take the collected data and undertake a genome-wide association study identifying deltas in gene expression as a consequence of SARS-COV-2 infection. VUMC scientists will sequence RNA samples in the medical center’s advanced genomic core known as VANTAGE.
Jennifer “Piper” Below, PhD, associate professor of medicine in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine