Kunle O. Odunsi, MD.

Kunle O. Odunsi, MD, aims to help reduce COVID-19 fatalities using next-generation sequencing technology that has changed cancer care.

Partnering on Project for Test Predicting Severe COVID-19

Published June 18, 2020

The University at Buffalo is joining forces with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and other regional and national health and research leaders to develop blood tests that uncover hidden information in the cells of those exposed to the novel coronavirus to determine which patients will develop severe symptoms.

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The project has the potential to advance understanding of COVID-19 and benefit patients worldwide.

Called the Western New York Immunogenomic COVID-19 Study, the new initiative unites three leading regional health care organizations: Roswell Park; UB, through the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; and Catholic Health. 

Identifying Biomarkers of Immune Response

Led by Roswell Park, the team will use next-generation sequencing to identify biomarkers of immune response to COVID-19 to predict which patients are likely to progress to severe infection that would require more intensive care.

The goal is to provide medical professionals with a blood test that will help them better prognose and triage patients with COVID-19, potentially saving lives and supporting the most effective and efficient use of resources.

“We believe we can limit COVID-19’s deadly impact by marrying thoughtful strategy to next-generation sequencing technology — an opportunity that we never had before with any previous pandemic, using technology that in a few short years has changed the way we detect, diagnose and treat cancer,” says Kunle O. Odunsi, MD, deputy director, Robert, Anne and Lew Wallace Endowed Chair in Cancer Immunotherapy, and chair of gynecologic oncology at Roswell Park and also professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Jacobs School.

Building Wide-Ranging Collaborations

Leading UB’s efforts is Gene D. Morse, PharmD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and director of a Center of Excellence in the Global Virus Network.

He is building scientific collaborations focused on the interface of virus-cancer-immunology research initiatives that will help facilitate the study.

“As director of UB’s Global Virus Network Center of Excellence, I have the opportunity to work with local and regional COVID-19 investigators and health care providers, while also facilitating research collaborations with international experts who are confronting the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Morse.

Catholic Health will join Roswell Park as a clinical site for the study, providing blood from consenting patients who test positive for COVID-19 to be sequenced and analyzed.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, which manufactures Ion Torrent gene sequencers and Oncomine immune-repertoire assays to be used in the study, will provide data analysis and defray the costs of the equipment and chemical reagents that are central to the study.

Large Variation in Effects of COVID-19

“No two people are alike — down to our immune cells — and we see this in the way people are responding differently to infection with COVID-19,” says Carl Morrison, MD, DVM, senior vice president of scientific development and integrative medicine at Roswell Park. 

“We’ve seen a huge variation in how COVID-19 affects people. Some are not sick at all, some get flu-like symptoms for a few days, and some become very sick and develop symptoms that can become life-threatening,” explains Morrison.

“What if we could predict when people contract COVID-19 which of these groups they will fall into?”

Sequencing Immune Receptors from T, B Cells

The research will focus on sequencing immune receptors from both T cells and B cells, the two major types of immune cells the human body enlists to fight off viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the particular coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Morse will examine the blood samples of COVID-19 patients for immune-pharmacodynamic markers to quantify antiviral and immune-therapeutics activity in relation to the stages of COVID-19 infection and the development of antibodies following infection.

“Together, the repertoire of T and B cell immune receptors could determine a person’s immune signature for COVID-19. With the tools available today, we can look at them with incredible accuracy to find clues to how the virus behaves in different bodies,” says Morrison.

The research is supported by a $150,000 gift from 11 Day Power Play Inc., a nonprofit.