Researchers collect genetic information from coronavirus patients to determine if their genome predisposes them to serious symptoms

Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland are looking into genes for information that could help physicians choose the treatment best suited to their patients. Another goal is to identify drugs that work against COVID-19.

Do human genes offer an explanation to how serious the coronavirus infection can become in different individuals? This is not yet known. However, researchers believe that genetic factors can influence the individual progression of the disease.

Andrea Ganna, a researcher specialised in statistical genetics and epidemiology, has been closely following the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic with his colleagues.

“We wanted to do our bit,” says Ganna, who works at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland FIMM.

In March Ganna and his colleagues started an international collaborative project to look at coronavirus patients' DNA samples for susceptibility and disease severity.

“Some people have mild symptoms of COVID-19, but others develop severe pneumonia. Our hypothesis is that individual genetics may explain the variation in corona symptoms. We want to look for mutations in patients' DNA that could explain the level of severity to which the disease progresses,” Ganna says.

The benefits of the project would be evident in both drug development and patient care.

“We know that certain drugs target certain genes. If mutations in that gene are also associated with COVID-19 severity or infection, it is possible that this medicine could also be used quite easily and quickly to treat coronavirus infection. If, on the other hand, it turns out that some people have a low genetic risk of developing serious symptoms, this information could be used to prioritize treatment,” Ganna says.

Data collection underway

Ganna and his colleagues have asked biobanks, hospitals and research institutes around the world to provide data gained from the DNA samples of coronavirus patients. Interested institutions can register on the initiative's website.

Ganna's group does not process DNA samples. Instead, they process genetic information pre-processed by the senders of the samples, which can be analysed by employing the methods of data science. In order to accelerate the program and obtain the data, FIMM Director Mark Daly has committed that FIMM will perform DNA genotyping and analysis for any institutes that lack the resources or facilities to do it themselves. Ganna's team transforms the data into a harmonised format and makes it available to the scientific community.

The initiative, which began in March, has already attracted about a dozen partners around the world. Significant cooperation is being carried out with the Italian University of Siena, where researchers are collecting samples from 11 hospitals in northern Italy. The first samples will arrive at FIMM within one month.

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) is also launching its own national study on the risk factors for serious COVID-19 symptoms. The research also participates as independent research in this international cooperation project.

The community wants to help – Openness is paramount

Although the initiative is new, the scientific community's willingness to help is already evident. Ganna says volunteer researchers have signed up to analyse the data, with the contributors communicating remotely. In Ganna's opinion, there is something new in this kind of openness and altruism.

“Often researchers want to be the first to make a discovery and publish it. However, in this project, everyone is looking for greater benefits.”

The study also has a personal significance for Ganna, whose family is from northern Italy.

“I come from Lombardy, where COVID-19 rates have been the highest in Italy. I know people who have become seriously ill, so there is also a personal component here.”