KHSC researchers use genome testing to better understand COVID-19

Dr. David Maslove, KHSC intensive care specialist and associate professor with Queen’s University working on the research project. Image via KHSC.

Researchers at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) are working on an answer to a question that has surfaced many times throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: Why does the virus seem to more seriously affect certain patients more than others?

According to a release from KHSC, dated Thursday, Sept 2, 2021, the answer may lay in our DNA.

“At a high level, the medical community has always wondered why some people get sick with certain types of infections and end up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and others don’t. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to look into this further,” said KHSC intensive care specialist and associate professor with Queen’s University, Dr. David Maslove.

The local study set out to determine why some people in the early stages of the pandemic seemingly contracted COVID-19 and suffered only mild symptoms, while others, many of who were young and in generally good health ended up in the ICU on a ventilator, according to the release.

“When COVID patients come into the ICU, we take one tube of blood and send it to Sick Kids Hospital to sequence the patient’s entire genome in their laboratory,” said Dr. Maslove. “We can now see there are some genetic traits associated with severe COVID and this gives us a better understanding of the disease. If we can learn about how the body is responding, we could learn how to better treat, or prevent, people from getting severe cases of COVID-19.”

According to KHSC, startup funding from the Southeastern Ontario Academic Medical Organization (SEAMO), allowed Canada to become the first country to export the GenOMICC study outside of the United Kingdom, where it was started by Dr. Kenneth Baillie.

So far, more than 10,000 patients have been recruited around the world, with a goal of recruiting 100,000 in total, according to the release. Nearly 100 patient-participants have been recruited through KHSC, and the team has initiated further participation of close to 300 patients in Ontario. Currently, teams in the United States, Australia, China and India are in the process of setting themselves up to begin recruiting patients.

The KHSC team is currently reviewing the data from the fully sequenced genomes of patients from 2020. The sequencing of more recent patient-participants is now underway.

“We hope to carry the research forward after the pandemic, so when someone comes to the ICU with something odd or unexplained we can take a tube of blood and do this work to better understand why they are sick,” said Dr. Maslove. “ICUs are the canary in the coal mine. Infections or diseases are seen in the ICU early, and from a public health perspective we could have a better network to identify trends earlier in future pandemics.”

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