covid virus
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink). (Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

A University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center molecular epidemiologist is working on an initiated coronavirus study aimed at understanding why certain individuals and racial/ethnic groups are more prone to the infection, and may suffer more severe symptoms of COVID-19.

Maarit Tiirikainen

The study by Maarit Tiirikainen and Hawaiʻi-based genomics company LifeDNA, Inc. will initially focus on the multi-ethnic population of Hawaiʻi and genetic variants of the ACE2 gene as they relate to infection with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19.

“There have been major differences in the rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection and the severe disease between the different geographic regions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even among young individuals,” said Tiirikainen, an associate professor at UH Mānoa.

“Epidemiological studies.indicate that populations carry different variants of the ACE2 gene. This variation in the gene coding for the ACE2 receptor may have an effect on the number of ACE2 receptors on the lung cells, as well as on how effectively the virus binds to the receptor. There may also be genetic differences in immunity and other important genes explaining why some people get more sick than others,” she added.

The genotyping for the study will be done at the Kakaʻako Genomics and Bioinformatics Shared Resource, co-directed by Tiirikainen and Youping Deng, professor of quantitative health sciences at the UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine.

LifeDNA, Inc. expects the results of the study will help identify the most vulnerable individuals and populations ahead of time in future SARS virus-family outbreaks. The company also envisions pharmacogenomics collaborations on life-enhancing and lifesaving preventive therapeutics.

Read the full news release on the UH Cancer Center website.