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VUMC joins global effort to explore COVID-19 genetics

Apr. 23, 2020, 10:46 AM


by Leigh MacMillan

Vanderbilt University Medical Center investigators have joined an international genetics effort to make advances as quickly as possible on understanding and treating COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative is bringing together the human genetics community to share resources for genetics research, such as consent forms, sample collection procedures and algorithms for utilizing data as it comes into electronic health records, said Nancy Cox, PhD, Mary Phillips Edmonds Gray Professor of Genetics and director of the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute. The initiative’s goal is to learn the genetic determinants of COVID-19 susceptibility, severity and outcomes.

Nancy Cox, PhD

The initiative formed from existing international genetics and biobanking consortia, such as the International Common Disease Alliance, of which Cox is a founding member.

“These consortium efforts include people who have contributed and collaborated internationally for many years and can take advantage of that machinery and goodwill to jumpstart things and get going as quickly as possible,” Cox said.

Vanderbilt has been a leader in the development of biobanks and electronic health records. BioVU, Vanderbilt’s DNA biobank and database of de-identified electronic health records, is one of the largest such biobanks in the world at a single center.

“Our ability at Vanderbilt to develop algorithms on the fly and to create and share protocols can be very helpful in times like these,” Cox said. “We all recognize that we must pool data resources. That’s one of the real beauties of this community — there’s an opportunity to get things together very quickly.”

Cox noted that an early effort will be directed at learning how existing drug treatments in highly vulnerable patients affect COVID-19 severity and outcomes.

“Patients with diabetes or with pre-existing lung or heart conditions seem to have worse outcomes. We know that these patients are taking many different drugs for their conditions: are the outcomes after infection the same, or do some drugs improve outcomes?” Cox said. “The sooner we can ask and answer those questions, the sooner we could be in a position to reduce the vulnerability of these patients to the worst outcomes.”

Vanderbilt investigators participating in the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative include Cox, Jennifer “Piper” Below, PhD, associate professor of Medicine, Lea Davis, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine, Simon Mallal, MBBS, Major E.B. Stahlman Professor of Infectious Diseases and Inflammation, Elizabeth Phillips, MD, John A. Oates Professor of Clinical Research and Lisa Bastarache, MS, Research Assistant Professor of Biomedical Informatics.

Josh Peterson, MD, MPH, professor of Biomedical Informatics, and Bastarache are leading the development of a COVID research registry from electronic health records, which will serve as a foundation for the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative and many other studies, Cox said.

“This is a rapidly evolving mosaic. There are many investigators with important research questions to address,” Cox added. “It’s been astonishing to see our front-line health care colleagues step up in such selfless and, frankly, dangerous ways to do their best to see us through this pandemic. I think we scientists can do no less.”

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