USU Scientists Join International COVID Human Genetic Effort

TAGC research technician Elisa Mcgrath-Martinez inspects the quality of an Illumina Flow Cell used to sequence genomes of severe COVID patients. (Photo by Kyle Skerbe)
By Sharon Holland

Scientists from around the world are coming together in a joint public-private partnership to study the human genetic basis of life-threatening COVID-19 through genome sequencing.

The group is called the COVID Human Genetic Effort (CHGE).  Two Uniformed Services University faculty members, Andrew Snow, PhD, associate professor of Pharmacology and Molecular Therapeutics, and Clifton Dalgard, PhD, associate professor, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics and director for The American Genome Center at USU, have joined the CHGE to support research currently underway, led by Helen Su, MD, PhD, at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health.  Dr. Su is a co-leader of the CHGE, along with Jean-Laurent Casanova, MD, PhD, from Rockefeller University in New York.  Su, Snow, Dalgard and their colleagues are deciphering how a person’s unique genetic makeup may influence whether they get severely sick or die from SARS-CoV-2 infection.  

Dr. Clifton Dalgard (left), associate professor of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics, and director of USU's The 
American Genome Center, and Dr. Andrew Snow (right), associate professor of Pharmacology and 
Molecular Therapeutics at USU, are participating in the international COVID Human Genetic Effort.
(Snow - Courtesy photo; Dalgard - Photo by David Arthur, courtesy of HJF)
The CHGE steering committee is made up of scientists from academic medical centers and research institutes in the United States, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Morocco, Sweden, Brazil, India, Mexico, Switzerland, Colombia, Spain, China, Iran, Hungary, Belgium, Japan, Denmark, Turkey, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Finland, Australia and Germany.  USU’s The American Genome Center (TAGC) will serve as one of more than 35 sequencing hubs around the world for the project that will contribute genetic data from people with severe COVID-19 to the consortium for study.

Their collective goal is to identify differences in individuals with COVID-19 and no other underlying conditions.  These genetic differences, which can be very rare or commonly found, may determine the molecular, cellular and immune system mechanisms that lead to the resistance to virus infection or predisposition to severe disease, particularly in young patients without known comorbidities.  These insights may pave the way for the development of novel preventive (e.g. vaccine) and therapeutic (e.g. treatment) strategies.

Camille Alba using a Microlab STAR precision liquid handling robot.
Camille Alba, lead associate for the "Genetic Determinants of Susceptibility to Severe COVID-19 Infection" project
for USU's The American Genome Center, monitors the production of DNA libraries using the
Microlab STAR precision liquid handling robot at USU. (Photo by Akea Brown)
Snow said this work will also directly inform research with military populations. “These efforts contribute greatly to supporting military health and readiness; we want to understand the etiology of severe disease in young and diverse patient populations which reflect our active duty soldiers,” he said. “Dr. Dalgard’s team at TAGC has done an incredible job in sequencing hundreds of patients to date, aided by staff across USU, including the Biomedical Instrumentation Center, Logistics, Network Operations and Communications, among others.” 

“Our immediate action in supporting NIAID and contributing to this global effort is imperative.  The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique challenge for which the medical and scientific community will come together to provide shared benefit to all,” adds Dalgard.