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VITAL research part-funded by Scottish-based charity Sepsis Research (FEAT) is at the forefront of a major new UK initiative in the fight against Covid-19.

Dr Kenneth Baillie, who leads a team of experts at Edinburgh University’s world-renowned Roslin Institute, has been named Chief Investigator by Genomics England in a partnership studying the genetic blueprints of thousands of people who have been most severely affected by COVID-19 and comparing them to those who experience only mild symptoms.

The ground-breaking research may help explain why some patients with COVID-19 experience a mild infection, others require intensive care and why, for some, it is fatal. By discovering why some people are pre-disposed to developing life-threatening symptoms, the consortium will be able to identify treatments which have the best chance of success in clinical trials, and potentially identify people at extreme risk if infected.

Dr Baillie had already embarked on a pioneering study into the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC), helped by financial backing from Sepsis Research (FEAT). His study, focusing on the role genes play in determining why people reacted differently to sepsis, had already recruited patients with emerging infections from hospitals throughout the UK.

Dr Baillie said: “Sepsis Research (FEAT) have made this possible. Almost two years ago they found the GenOMICC study and decided to invest in it in order to help us understand why some people die of infection while others don’t even get sick. The aim of this work from the start has been to find new treatments by understanding the complex processes in the body that lead to critical illness and death.

“Because of their foresight and unique funding model, Sepsis Research (FEAT) have enabled the creation of a UK-wide network of intensive care units (currently 171 ICUs and 2079 patients  – see for latest figure and hospitals involved) which meant that the UK was ready to do genetics research across the whole country before COVID-19 emerged.”

Announcing the link-up with the GenOMICC consortium, Genomics England, which is owned by the UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care, said: “The study, facilitated by University of Edinburgh and multiple NHS hospitals, will sequence the genomes of those most affected by COVID19 in order to better understand its effects on humans and support the search for treatments.

“The research programme will reach patients across a UK-wide network of over 100 intensive care units and will share information with the recently announced UK COVID19 Viral Sequencing Programme. It builds on a programme of work delivered by intensive care clinicians and research

nurses across the whole country. GenOMICC aims to recruit every single COVID19 patient who is put on a ventilator in the UK.

“Building on experience from the 100K Genomes Project, and the continuing relationship with Genomics England, whole genome sequencing will be performed by Illumina Laboratory Services (ILS) in Cambridge.

“Together, these initiatives will enable novel insights into the virus, as well as possible human factors that influence the effects of the disease, and whether a combination of both shape outcomes for NHS patients.

“The data that is collected during the study will also inform global strategic planning for possible later waves of the pandemic, and for new pandemics in the future.”

Dr Baillie added: “Our genes play a role in determining who becomes desperately sick with infections like COVID-19. Identifying the specific genes that are important in COVID-19 might help us to find treatments. 

“We started the GenOMICC study long before the outbreak, so we were ready for this. The study is already established and recruiting in 117 ICUs across the country. We are excited to work with Genomics England to sequence critically-ill patients’ genomes and to get as much information as possible about susceptibility to this new disease.”

Rt Hon Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, said: “I am delighted to be announcing this further major programme in the UK’s fight against COVID19. As a nation we are determined to harness the UK’s leadership in genomics to understand its role in viral response and whether we can use this information to identify those at greatest risk and improve their treatment.”

Sir Mark Caulfield, Chief Scientist at Genomics England, said: “For the first time in a generation we face a global viral pandemic that is life threatening for some people yet others have a mild infection. By reading the whole genome we may able to identify variation that affects response to COVID and discover new therapies that could reduce harm, save lives and even prevent future outbreaks.”

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