LITTLE ROCK, AR. (July 7, 2020) – A National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded collaboration between scientists at Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) will help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) understand more about the variants of COVID-19 circulating in the state by increasing capacity for genomic sequencing, tracking and analyses of virus samples.
The $770,000 NIH grant will be devoted to the powerful collaboration between UAMS, Arkansas Children’s, Baptist Health and ADH. The “Arkansas Sequencing (ArkSeq) Consortium” will be a source for samples from across the state to be used for sequencing COVID-19 variants. ACRI will provide an additional $200,000, in part from Arkansas Biosciences Institute funds, to expand sequencing capacity.
ACRI’s NIH-funded Center for Translational Pediatric Research (CTPR) and UAMS’ IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) will lead the collaborative efforts. The grant is awarded to Dr. Alan Tackett, CTPR director, professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and deputy director for the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, and Dr. Josh Kennedy, associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, Division of Allergy and Immunology, is the project leader.
Kennedy said the work will help the state understand which variants of COVID-19 are present in Arkansas and could even help identify new variants. Data ranging from demographics to collection dates, symptoms and vaccination status will all be essential to the project, which will result in actionable data provided to the CDC and ADH.
“The big picture information that emerges from this type of detail can equip the healthcare community to respond more quickly, ultimately saving more lives and preventing some serious complications,” Kennedy said. “Combining the expertise and resources of several Arkansas health leaders will mean we help more people faster.”
State-of-the-art, next generation sequencing platforms will allow the researchers to sequence COVID-19 positive samples from the ArkSeq Consortium over the next year. Findings from this sustainable SARS CoV-2 genomic surveillance data and analyses will be shared with state of Arkansas to improve ongoing pandemic response and preparedness.
“This approach will allow us to answer crucial research questions,” Kennedy said. “What are the relative levels of the different variants in Arkansas? How does this change over time? Are there specific variants of concern that are more commonly identified in vaccinated people? We hope to come away with answers to these and so much more.”
Today, Arkansas has sequenced fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 samples – a total of only 0.28% of all cases. That ranks the state 48th nationally for total samples sequenced. The scientists expect to yield eight times more sequences from Arkansas for national databases, also producing additional samples for future study.
Crucial bioinformatics support for the project will be provided by Drs. Stephanie Byrum, assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and David Ussery, professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Biomedical Informatics.
This research is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number (P20GM121293).
UAMS is the state’s only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute and Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS’ clinical enterprise including its hospital, regional clinics and clinics it operates or staffs in cooperation with other providers. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. U.S. News & World Report named UAMS Medical Center the state’s Best Hospital; ranked its ear, nose and throat program among the top 50 nationwide; and named six areas as high performing — COPD, colon cancer surgery, heart failure, hip replacement, knee replacement and lung cancer surgery. UAMS has 2,876 students, 898 medical residents and four dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit www.uams.edu or www.uamshealth.com. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.