March 2021Research at the Lady Davis Institute

A year with COVID-19: JGH is founding participant in COVID-19 biobank

With expertise in providing primary care for patients infected with COVID-19 and in fundamental and clinical research, the Jewish General Hospital has been at the forefront of a province-wide effort to collect and analyze genetic data that generates a more in-depth understanding of the novel coronavirus.

On April 1, 2020—within a couple of months of the first cases of what would explode into a global pandemic—the Fonds de recherche du Québec – santé (FRQS) and Genome Québec launched the Quebec COVID-19 Biobank (BQC19). Its aim was to collect, analyze, store, and share with other researchers biological samples and data gathered from patients infected with COVID-19.

Dr. Brent Richards

Dr. Brent Richards

The Jewish General Hospital was a founding partner of the province-wide network of clinical facilities contributing to the biobank. Dr. Brent Richards, a genetic epidemiologist and endocrinologist, leads the initiative at the JGH and sits on the Governance Committee of BQC19.

“During the first wave of infections, it was crucial for a healthcare system that was on the brink of being overwhelmed to develop tools with which to accurately assess the probable trajectory of a patient’s illness,” explains Dr. Richards, a Professor of Medicine, Human Genetics, Epidemiology and Biostatistics at McGill University.

“The system also needed a way to predict who could recuperate at home, who was likely to become severely ill, who may require advanced intensive care, and to use genetic biomarkers as part of the hunt for therapeutic remedies.

“We did this by rapidly mobilizing our large research team of scientists and leading artificial intelligence teams, and sharing our data with clinical and public health teams. Given our investments in biobanking and digital information at the JGH, we are well positioned to play a leadership role in helping to manage the pandemic.

“The BQC19 has created the largest COVID-19 biobank in the country, consisting of more than 2,000 patients. Of these, 65 per cent were recruited at the JGH.”

“The BQC19 has created the largest COVID-19 biobank in the country, consisting of more than 2,000 patients. Of these, 65 per cent were recruited at the JGH, thanks to incredible interdepartmental collaboration within the hospital and a tremendous team of clinical research coordinators led by Project Coordinator David Morrison.”

Best practices in patient care are driven by scientific evidence that translates knowledge from the lab bench to the clinical setting. Still, given that this remains a relatively new illness, more research is critically needed to better understand COVID-19 infection and transmission.

This knowledge can help to identify at-risk individuals, protect them and improve treatment of this disease, which causes a wide range of complications, from respiratory inflammation to blood clots to neurological issues to chronic pain and fatigue.

Research can provide information to help with all aspects of disease management, and the first step in this regard is to collect samples and data from infected individuals. The composition of genes and proteins in the virus are sequenced and scientists determine how different configurations of the virus manifest in the symptoms and outcomes experienced by patients.

A recent, though by no means unexpected, twist in the pandemic’s saga is the emergence of new variants that have proven to be more transmissible than the original coronavirus. There is an ever-present concern that subsequent mutations will permit the virus to evade the vaccines that have, thus far, proven remarkably effective.

It is now crucial to identify the specific variant with which patients have been infected. The presence of multiple variances could have a dramatic impact on vaccination strategies as well as treatment options going forward.

For example, Dr. Richards’ lab at the Lady Davis Institute has used advanced genomics to identify a protein that, when its presence is, seems to have a protective effect against severe COVID-19 disease.

This discovery was made, in part, through extensive genomic analysis, including more than 500 biological samples from BQC19. These results will be published shortly in Nature Medicine and are already influencing clinical drug development.


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