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Houston researchers monitor virus mutations to fight COVID-19 pandemic

HOUSTON – Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine are going far beyond the search for a vaccine.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the BCM transformed an academic research lab studying Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in children into one that has direct access to COVID-19 patient samples.

“We’re collecting samples, and we’re testing them daily with about a 24-hour turn-around,” said Dr. Pedro Piedra.

Piedra said the labs receive samples from Baylor’s affiliated hospitals and can test up to 350 samples a day. Positive samples are then thoroughly mapped to keep tabs on changes in the virus.

“So we have sequences from back in March that were in Houston, and we can compare with the ones here and see how the virus is changing over time,” said Dr. Vasanthi Avadhanula. “There’s not much mutation, but there are changes that are occurring in the virus.”

Avadhanula said COVID-19 is unique in that researchers have seen some patients with high viral loads experience no symptoms while some patients with low amounts of the virus experience severe symptoms.

This is where mapping the virus and then matching the strain to a patient and his or her symptoms can help unlock, which segments of the population are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Piedra said tracking changes in the virus is key to developing a vaccine that can cover multiple strains of the virus.

”You need to be sure that your strain is going to be able to cross-cover other strains as they evolve,” said Piedra.

Researchers are also studying exactly how the virus attacks the body.

“When you want to study diseases, you want to study it in a system where the disease is happening,” said Dr. Anu Rajan.

Rajan uses stem cells from the nasal and bronchial washes of patients to cultivate tiny systems that mimic a person’s nose and lungs, which is also called organoids.

“Eventually (these) have all the different things your nasal cavity and your lung has. For example, nasal makes mucus, so this makes mucus too,” said Rajan.

The virus is then injected into these organoids to see how it affects these parts of our bodies. Rajan said different medicines can also be added to these systems, along with possible vaccines to help determine what works and what doesn’t when fighting the virus.

“These are very powerful platforms that closely mimic humans,” said Rajan.

Anti-bodies are another area of study. Dr. Xuyan Ye is working to first develop a test to accurately measure a person’s antibodies to this virus and from there determining what level of protection a person has to reinfection and for how long.

“You have to do the antibody detection to see how long the antibody can last. Maybe last two years, maybe last five years,” said Ye. “You have to follow a person.”

Dr. Laura Angelo said studying antibodies also helps researchers understand how the virus is stopped.

“Watching how the antibodies block the binding of the viral protein to the cell protein,” said Angelo.

These labs are part of BCM’s Vaccine Research Center and Piedra said this work is being collected and shared with other researchers. Another benefit of this research will be a more clear definition of who in the population is most at risk for suffering severe symptoms from the virus.