Researchers at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute are doing their part fight COVID-19.
Deputy Director Alan Tackett, Ph.D., and Josh Kennedy, M.D., associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics Division of Allergy and Immunology, are leading a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded team to track virus variants circulating in Arkansas.
The $770,000 NIH grant is devoted to a strategic collaboration among researchers, faculty and clinicians at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s, Baptist Health and the Arkansas Department of Health. The Arkansas Sequencing (ArkSeq) Consortium, as it’s referred to, will be a source for COVID-19 samples from across the state to be used for sequencing virus variants.
“NIH has strategically allocated funds in key sites across the nation for COVID variant identification and tracking,” Tackett said. “Our research team was identified as the group in Arkansas to lead these important efforts. With the surge in delta variant infections in our state, we have redirected resources from cancer and other disease research towards virus sequencing to help our state identify and track current and future variants of concern in the adult and pediatric populations,” he said.
“The delta variant is rampant across the U.S. and Arkansas,” said Kennedy. “It currently represents more than 80% of the genomes sequenced from samples from our state. We need to be ready for what variant might be next, and this work will help us identify these new variants when they develop,” he said.
To date, Arkansas has uploaded just over 1,700 COVID-19 samples to national databases –a total of only 0.48% of all cases. Tackett and Kennedy expect to yield seven times more sequences from Arkansas for national databases and produce additional samples for future study. The ArkSeq Consortium has already provided more than 2,000 samples that will be sequenced through Kennedy’s lab and the genomics cores at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI).
“Sequencing for variants of SARS-CoV-2 will help us to understand the evolution of the virus over time, and it will help determine when or if the virus can evade our immune systems and cause greater disease,” Kennedy said. “We hope to provide this level of detail to front-line health care workers in our state to help more people faster.”
Kennedy is overseeing viral sequencing at an NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, directed by Tackett at ACRI. Data analysis is conducted at UAMS under the direction of Stephanie Byrum, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and director of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Bioinformatics Shared Resource, and David Ussery, Ph.D., professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biomedical Informatics. Bioinformatics will be performed in collaboration with the Arkansas INBRE program at UAMS.
This research is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award number P20GM121293.