Boston researchers using COVID-19 patients’ DNA to unlock secrets about impact of virus

BOSTON — Researchers at Brigham and Women’s and Mass General Hospitals may just be weeks away from learning more about why some patients suffer bad cases of COVID-19, while others show no symptoms at all.

They’re going beyond pre-existing conditions, to look at the secrets locked in our DNA. Patients consent to have their blood drawn and preserved in a “Biobank” for research. So far nearly 200 local COVID patients are part of the research.

Jennifer Kearney of North Reading is one of the participants. She caught the virus from her husband, who was an essential worker in food distribution, but they both had very different symptoms.

“It felt like I got punched in the chest for about two weeks straight,” Kearney said. “I'm in the gym six or seven days a week, and I couldn't even walk 10 feet to the bathroom without feeling out of breath.

Dr. Ann Woolley is an attending physician at Brigham and Women’s division of infectious diseases. Her team is collecting clinical data from dozens of COVID-19 patients like Kearney.

“What we want to be able to know is why,” Dr. Woolley said. “What is it about a patient, both their clinical features, meaning is that the different medical conditions that they may have, such as diabetes, such as heart conditions or underlying lung disease, or is it something actually genetic about the individual that then is what predicts whether or not they’re going to have a serious case of COVID that actually causes them to need to be hospitalized.

Brigham and Women’s medical geneticist and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Robert Green says thousands of cases are needed to get more answers. He's coordinating the data from local hospitals with international data to get a better idea of what might be happening on a DNA level.

“It’s an end-run around some of the direct research that’s being done to try to find unexpected clues in your DNA to new treatments and new vaccines,” Dr. Green said.

He said the first results from the study could be out in just a few weeks.

“Honestly, that is warp speed when it comes to analyzing genomic data and getting some sort of answer,” Dr. Green added.

Jennifer Kearney recently tested negative for the virus after weeks of recovery. She’s planning to donate plasma too and says she’s happy to be part of something that could potentially lead to a treatment or maybe even a cure.

“I feel really excited and hopeful that what I was able to give can contribute to the greater good,” Kearney said.

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