Gene study explores varying effect of COVID-19

13 May 2020

University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust (UHB) has joined the fight against coronavirus by recruiting COVID-19 patients to participate in a ground-breaking new study of the disease that aims to identify specific genes that may explain why some people are more affected by the virus than others. The genomic sequencing may also be useful in the search for effective treatments.

The GenOMICC Study Consortium, led by the University of Edinburgh and Genomics England study, will see 170 NHS hospitals including UHB work with researchers to sequence the genomes of 20,000 people who are severely ill with COVID-19. To date, more than 2000 patients have been recruited to the GenOMICC study, with 88 patients recruited at UHB in the last 3 weeks.

The data collected by UHB and other Trusts will be compared to that from a further 15,000 COVID-19 patients who experienced only mild symptoms. This data will be collected from participants in the 100,000 Genomes Project and UK Biobank.

This ground-breaking research may help explain why some patients with COVID-19 experience a mild infection, others require intensive care and why for some it is sadly fatal. By discovering why some people are predisposed to developing life-threatening symptoms, the initiative will enable novel insights into the virus, as well as possible human factors that influence the effects of the disease, and whether a combination of both shape outcomes for NHS patients.

UHB is now recruiting patients to participate in the study and is aiming to recruit 150 patients over the next 8 weeks.

Dr James Scriven, Principal Investigator at UHB, said:

“Birmingham has been hit hard by COVID-19. Over the last 3 months more than 3000 patients have been hospitalized with COVID-19 across the 4 UHB hospitals with hundreds requiring intensive care treatment. One of the puzzling features of this infection is why some patients develop severe disease while others have only minimal symptoms. This important study will provide a unique insight into whether there is any genetic predisposition and may pave the way for new treatments in the future.”

Dr Kenneth Baillie, Chief Investigator on the GenOMICC study, said: “Our genes play a role in determining who becomes desperately sick with infections like COVID-19. Understanding these genes will help us to choose treatments for clinical trials. The GenOMICC study has been running since 2016, and has been investigating genetic factors that impact how patients fare in response to a number of severe illnesses. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, and with the tremendous support of the UK critical care community, the study has expanded and accelerated enormously, and we are now recruiting in over 170 ICUs across the country. I am delighted to be working with UHB to deliver this important work.”

Chris Wigley, CEO of Genomics England said: “NHS Trusts are absolutely vital to the national response to this terrible pandemic, so I am extremely glad that UHB has joined our efforts to gain new insights into how this virus affects us. With their help, and with the support and understanding of thousands of patients and their families, we hope we will be able to build identify treatments which have the best chance of success in clinical trials, and build on the work of the 100,000 Genomes Project to develop strong infrastructure for the future.”