Pilot funding launches new wave of COVID research

Friday, January 21, 2022

By Alissa Kocer

The Duke University School of Medicine Precision Genomics Collaboratory awarded $15,000 pilot grants to young investigators in January 2021. These grants focused on COVID-19 research that broadly involved genetics and genomics. One year later, these young investigators are in the thick of cutting-edge research.

Building a COVID cohort

Matthew McCravy, MD, is a fellow in pulmonary, allergy and critical care medicine who is  interested in the interaction between airway diseases and metabolic syndrome. Early in the pandemic, he and his colleagues observed an apparent correlation between metabolic syndrome and worse outcomes for patients fighting COVID. “We wanted to investigate the interaction between those with metabolic diseases and those having bad outcomes of COVID in the intensive care unit,” McCravy said.

Using data from a newly formed COVID biorepository at Duke, as well as some of the Duke’s preexisting resources and biobanks, McCravy is working to develop a cohort of COVID patients who have been admitted to the hospital. Using clinically available data collected from these patients, his group is genotyping blood to look for genetic differences and pathways of interest that could help explain why some people experience worse outcomes with COVID than others.

This pilot investigation is helping the team build the data necessary for a larger R-level study.

Age makes a difference

Stephanie Langel, PhD, is a medical instructor in the Department of Surgery. She used funds from this pilot grant to support an existing pilot grant exploring the differences in responses to the SARS-CoV-2 virus between adults and children.

“COVID doesn’t affect kids like it does adults,” Langel said, “or even like other respiratory viruses like RSV and influenza.” Children have had low hospitalization and death rates with COVID-19 as compared to adults, and researchers are starting to understand why.

The pilot grant provided the funds necessary to isolate RNA and conduct transcriptomics from animal models. Langel’s team discovered higher levels of interferon in the upper respiratory tract of younger animals. As the name implies, interferon literally interferes with viral infection, so the sooner interferon is present, the better the odds of mild infection. On the flip side, if interferon is delayed, as happens in older patients, the disease tends to become more severe because the host can’t bring down the viral burden in those critical first few days.

Data collected in this work has been used to apply for an R01 grant which is  currently under review.