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Test tubes

Colorado State University Teams Up with UCHealth to Develop COVID-19 Biobank

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Written by Mary Guiden on December 17, 2020

Devin Kadis, a fourth-year student at Colorado State University, tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, in August 2020. It’s been a journey, which unfortunately is not yet over. 

Kadis, who has asthma, had almost every symptom of the virus, including a loss of taste and smell, frequent coughing and trouble breathing. She also experienced “crazy fatigue,” nausea and abdominal and chest pain. Months later, she falls into the category of being a COVID-19 “long hauler,” since some of the painful symptoms return occasionally. 

Through her job at the Human Performance Clinical Research Laboratory at CSU, Kadis met Associate Professor Elizabeth Ryan and other members of her team. When she learned that Ryan was creating a biobank to study the longer-term effects from COVID-19, she said “sign me up.”

Following the course of a virus, illness

A biobank is a repository for biological samples, and the Northern Colorado Coronavirus Biorepository includes saliva, nasopharyngeal, stool, blood and breastmilk that will be used in research. 

Ryan – whose expertise is studying immune responses to environmental exposures, including infections – said the goal is to identify and follow the course of infection in people for at least six months. This can be helpful in determining why someone like Kadis is suffering long-term effects from the virus, while another person feels normal after recovering from the initial infection. 

“We want to understand differences in not only human clinical immune responses, but also metabolism and underlying chronic conditions that can influence what the burden is on a person’s body,” said Ryan. 

Researchers will also look at the persistence of virus that is associated with health complications for some patients. The team meets with patients four times over six months, with plans for a one-year follow up. 

The research team includes UCHealth’s Dr. Julie Dunn, a trauma surgeon and principal investigator for the project. Earlier this year, up to 30% of trauma patients across the country were testing positive for COVID-19, she said. This puts healthcare workers, patients and family members at risk of catching the virus and adds another layer of complexity to patient care. 

“We have to learn more about this disease,” said Dunn. “COVID-19 is going to potentially be with us for a long, long time, even as vaccines become available. Unlike things like the flu, what we have seen is that there are grave repercussions for a certain number of patients after they’ve tested positive. We’ve seen clotting disorders and cardiovascular and long-term health issues that we don’t understand.”

Biorepository can help with research in years to come

Ryan said the biobank samples and the integrated database of clinical factors from hospitalized patients can help the team explore multiple research questions, now and in the future. 

“We are storing all of these samples, including immune cells, with standardized protocols and can examine them down the road, to determine things like how soon we should vaccinate a person after they’ve had the infection,” she said. 

So far, the team has enrolled 100 people in the biorepository, and has a goal of recruiting 200 additional people in the next year, depending on funding. 

Patients are recruited through Medical Center of the Rockies, Poudre Valley Hospital and Greeley Hospital. Ryan said the team hopes to get a broad range of people by age, race and ethnicity. 

“We see a lot of value in investing in this research,” said Ryan. “Beyond providing biological specimens, our cohort of COVID-19 survivors have shared the wide range of impacts on their social and physical well-being. Developing lifestyle interventions is a future goal for us to help people. We are committed to find answers about the virus.” 

Kadis – who is studying health and exercise science – is happy to be a part of the problem-solving process, since it may ultimately benefit her health and wellbeing. 

“I want to be a part of a future solution or increased knowledge about people who have had COVID-19,” said Kadis. “If I can, in any way, help build the biobank and help researchers figure out some ways to help the long haulers, I definitely want to be a part of it.” 

Dunn’s UCHealth medical research team – including Omar Alnachoukati and Linda Zeir – oversees the collection of patient samples. 

COVID-19 patient clinical visits at CSU are led by Dr. Stephanie LaVergne, Project Manager Bridget Baxter and Sophia Stromberg, an undergraduate student and study phlebotomist.   

The laboratory processing and analysis include collaborations with Professor Greg Ebel, Dr. Marcela Henao-Tamayo and Dr. Tracy Webb at CSU.   

Learn more about the research at clinicaltrials.gov

This story originally appeared in CSU Source.