You’ve heard of the Human Genome Project. Now the University of Colorado Cancer Center Human Immune Monitoring Shared Resource (HIMSR) is partnering with the Cancer Center Tissue Biobanking and Histology Shared Resource to store COVID-19 samples for individual research efforts and for a major project known as the COVID-ome.
“You can generate a massive amount of data off these samples – all the ‘omics’ like proteomics, genomics, metabolomics, RNA seq, multiple cytokine measurements, high-dimensional mass cytometry, pretty much all the high-parameter analysis you can think of. And then we can make the data available to everyone on campus,” says HIMSR Assistant Director, Kimberly Jordan, PhD.
The project started when researchers in the CU School of Medicine Department of Immunology and Microbiology looked for a place to implement enhanced biosafety procedures that would allow them to experiment with COVID-19-related materials. Having worked for years with clinical research samples, the HIMSR was a logical home. Then Anschutz Medical Campus leadership recognized that many investigators on campus wanted to work with coronavirus samples and instead of encouraging investigators to contact already-stressed doctors to secure patient samples, leadership decided to create a centralized biobank.
“It made sense to use our infrastructure. We totally pivoted,” Jordan says.
Under Jordan’s direction, the HIMSR started processing COVID-19 patient samples for cryogenic storage.
“What that means is that we are being as careful as possible with these samples – disinfecting everything and nothing goes in and out of the room. We have to gown up, wear booties, masks and face shields,” Jordan says. “It’s hard to see what you’re doing and takes some getting used to for sure.”
Now clinicians working directly with COVID-19 patients can contribute blood samples to one of four projects: A collection of samples from all COVID-19 patients treated at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital; an all-comers collection of pediatric samples from Children’s Hospital Colorado; blood samples left over from all COVID-19 patients that could be used to search for a connection between genetics and patient outcomes; and an ongoing sampling of healthcare workers meant to explore immune system adaptation to exposure over time.
“The idea is that other researchers on campus can request the samples and they will be available for experiments,” Jordan says. “This should make for a really rich data source that people can use to get molecular signatures of COVID-19. It’s a basis of knowledge that we can mine for meaning.”
Meanwhile, in addition to processing COVID-19 samples, the HIMSR will continue to support research into the inner working of the disease.
“It’s an inflammatory disease and nobody has preexisting immunity to it, so it’s an interesting time for an immunologist,” Jordan says.
The HIMSR’s goals include understanding the extent to which people infected with COVID-19 gain immunity.
“Does exposure really result in immunity, and is it long term immunity? Does it prevent infection next year or are we going to go through this again?” Jordan asks.
By answering these questions (and many more), Jordan hopes to speed the development of a vaccine.
“And in the meantime,” she says, “we’ll keep contributing however we can.”