New partnership to sequence human genomes to study genetics and coronavirus

Image of scientists and a genome to show New partnership to sequence human genomes to study genetics and coronavirus

Thousands of patients severely ill with COVID-19 will have their genetic code studied to help scientists understand any link between genetics and coronavirus.

The major new human whole genome sequencing study will take place across the NHS, involving up to 20,000 people currently or previously in an intensive care unit with coronavirus, as well as 15,000 individuals who have mild or moderate symptoms.

Genomics England, is partnering with the GenOMICC consortium, Illumina and the NHS to launch the research drive, which will reach patients in 170 intensive care units throughout the UK.

The project is backed by £28m from Genomics England, UK Research and Innovation, the Department of Health and Social Care and the National Institute for Health Research.

The study, facilitated by the University of Edinburgh and multiple NHS hospitals, will explore the varied effects coronavirus has on patients, supporting the search for treatments by identifying those most at risk and helping to fast-track new therapies into clinical trials.

Since genetic discoveries need very large numbers of patients, the GenOMICC study ultimately aims to recruit every single COVID-19 patient who is admitted to intensive care in the UK.

Patients will only be enrolled in the study if they, or their next of kin, have given their consent. As part of this study so far, DNA samples have been collected from almost 2,000 patients.

Genomics England will read the data from entire genomes – or genetic blueprints – of thousands of people who have been most severely affected by coronavirus and compare them to those who experience only mild symptoms.

By combining the genome with rich clinical characteristics and comparing those who become severely ill with those that experience a much milder illness, the consortium hopes to gain new insights into how the virus affects us.

This ground-breaking research may help explain why some patients with coronavirus experience a mild infection, others require intensive care and why some patients die from the disease. By discovering why some people are predisposed to developing life-threatening symptoms, the consortium will be able to identify treatments which have the best chance of success in clinical trials, and potentially identify people at extreme risk if they develop COVID-19.

Illumina will sequence all 35,000 genomes at its laboratories in Cambridge, UK, where they successfully delivered the 100,000 Genomes Project together with Genomics England and the NHS. Illumina will share some of the cost via an in-kind contribution.

The announcement demonstrates how different parts of the UK’s world-leading genomics community are working together to get a full picture of both the spread and impact of the virus.

This work – sequencing human genomes – complements the UK COVID-19 Viral Sequencing Programme (COG-UK) announced in March and its work already underway to sequence the genome of the virus itself, led by Public Health England and the Sanger Institute.

Data from the person’s own genome can be linked to the virus genome data provided via the viral sequencing programme by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), a partnership of NHS organisations, UK public health agencies, the Sanger Institute and UK academic centres.

Part of the overall genomic study will also focus on children and young adults severely affected by COVID-19. The NIHR BioResource is partnering with GenOMICC and Genomics England to provide infrastructure, expertise and £1m funding to investigate this by collecting samples from these young patients and their parents.

These initiatives 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.

The data that is collected during the study will also inform global strategic planning for possible later waves of the pandemic, and for new pandemics in the future.

Since genetic discoveries need very large numbers of patients, patients who have already had COVID-19 and have now recovered are invited to volunteer to take part in the study.

Find out how to register interest to take part in the GenOMICC study.


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