There has been ample speculation about the nature of President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, with conflicting reports creating confusion around the severity of his illness. Is the president on the mend, or is his case of COVID-19 about to get a lot worse? GoodCell, a company that offers genetic testing and biobanking, is launching a study to better understand whether genes can tell us something about who is likely to have a bad reaction to COVID-19.
“Is there something in blood—in our genetics—that we can measure, that tells us that one individual versus another is more predisposed to undergo that pathway?” says Dr. Salvatore Viscomi, who heads up GoodCell’s product line of genetic and biomarker testing as the company’s chief medical officer. “We believe there is.”
GoodCell is teaming up with the New York Blood Center to better understand whether there are certain genes that are associated with severe COVID-19. The company hopes the results will better inform the genetic testing it currently offers. The study will look at three groups of people: those without COVID-19, those who experienced a mild form of the illness, and those with the most severe symptoms. Viscomi aims to determine “who gets the sniffles and who ends up in the ICU,” he says. Results of the study should be available by early November.
Doctors already know that some adults are more prone to contracting a severe form of COVID-19 based on their existing health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that people who are suffering from chronic kidney disease, obesity, a heart condition, or a weakened immune system are likely to experience more severe symptoms of COVID-19. Trump is 74 years old and obese, two criteria that put him at risk of suffering COVID-19’s more severe affects.
Viscomi believes certain genetic factors may also indicate whether he’s predisposed to experience those more serious symptoms.
“We know that when COVID-19 came out it was not just a respiratory illness—people were having cardiovascular events and then they were having events where their blood was clotting,” he says. “So people are now thinking about COVID-19 as not necessarily a pulmonary disease.”
GoodCell’s study will look at nine genes associated with a health phenomenon called clonal hematopoiesis , or CH, wherein a certain type of blood or marrow-based stem cell starts making mutated blood cells. Past research links these mutated cells with a series of health problems, including chronic inflammation, abnormal blood clotting, and some cancers. The GoodCell study builds on published research from earlier this year that showed a significant overlap among people with severe COVID-19 and people with CH-related genes.
Viscomi believes that a couple of genes in particular may have something to do with the immune overreaction that some severe COVID-19 patients experience. In this inflammatory response, which is called a cytokine storm, the body attacks itself. At least two genes in the study are correlated to the group of proteins and peptides that elicit this response.
“It’s kind of like pieces in the puzzle—all these things that are starting to fit in,” Viscomi says.
Clonal hematopoiesis that arises in otherwise healthy people typically can be found only with a genetic test. GoodCell already tests for the genes associated with CH, but the company hopes to better understand the correlation between these genes and severe COVID-19. Ultimately, the company wants to be able to better inform patients about their health and create preventative measures that avoid the worst affects of diseases like COVID-19.