Google.org backs VUMC, UNC study on how COVID-19 alters gene expression

Google.org awarded $500,000 to Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to analyze how COVID-19 modifies gene expression in some people in ways that may cause severe illness and death.

Nashville, Tenn.-based VUMC and UNC researchers will study blood samples collected over the past 16 years from more than 4,000 participants in the Cameron County (Texas) Hispanic Cohort. Some of the individuals from the cohort have been infected by the novel coronavirus, and Cameron County has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to the Sept. 10 news release.

The researchers will use artificial intelligence tools to scan the genome for changes in gene expression that may be due to COVID-19 infection and which are associated with severe respiratory illness as well as other long-term or life-threatening complications.

"We really don't fully understand the mechanism by which COVID-19 is able to wreak so much havoc on so many different systems within the body," said Jennifer Below, PhD, associate medicine professor at VUMC and co-principal investigator on the project. "If we could identify which molecular pathways are being perturbed by the infection, that would give us a window into developing targeted therapeutics and pharmaceuticals that could potentially prevent such negative consequences."  

VUMC researchers will sequence RNA samples in the medical center's advanced genomics core, and both UNC and VUMC will conduct genome-wide association studies to pinpoint changes in gene expression that may arise from COVID-19 infection.

The funding is part of Google.org's $100 million commitment in support of COVID-19 relief efforts by non-government organizations and academic institutions for vulnerable populations.

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