Industry-Sponsored Research Week funds UNC and Vanderbilt research into genetic impact of COVID-19

By David Schwartz
Published: September 22nd, 2020

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University Medical Center have been awarded $500K by Google’s philanthropy arm,, to study how COVID-19 alters gene expression in ways that may be linked to a higher risk of severe illness and death.

The study will analyze blood samples collected during the past 16 years from more than 4,000 participants in the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort – a group residing near the

Texas-Mexico border that has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the U.S.

“This study is absolutely unprecedented,” said study principal investigator Kari North, professor of epidemiology in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. For the first time, researchers are able to compare RNA from the blood collected over years from the same individuals before and after SARS-CoV-2 infection. Participants’ RNA expression profiles also will be compared to those of other cohort participants who have not been infected.

“The identification of changes in gene expression associated with COVID-19 infection and severity will contribute to global knowledge on the biology of SARS-CoV-2,” North said.

Using artificial intelligence tools, the researchers will scan the genome for changes in gene expression that may be due to SARS-CoV-2 infection and are associated with severe respiratory illness and other long-term or potentially 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 the project’s co-principal investigator, Jennifer “Piper” Below, associate professor of medicine in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “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.”

The funding is part of’s $100 million pledge to support COVID-19 relief efforts among NGOs and academic institutions serving vulnerable populations.

The Cameron County Hispanic Cohort initially was established to study disproportionately high rates of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease in Mexican-Americans living in that high-risk county. With the arrival of COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on Hispanic Americans, the researchers realized that biological samples collected from cohort participants over time also might reveal, at the molecular level, how SARS-CoV-2 impacts the body.

They plan to obtain RNA samples and health assessments from 250 cohort participants who have been infected by SARS-CoV-2 and from 250 uninfected controls, and to complete the study within a year.

The cohort “is an unbelievable resource that exists in very few places, let alone in an under-represented, medically underserved and socioeconomically depressed population,” Below said. “This is a population that’s being devastated. We’re right at the beginning of being able to understand how they are being impacted by COVID-19 at the molecular level.”

Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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