COVID-19 Now Research Focus Of Health Database That Has Several Wisconsin Partners

Jul 7, 2020

A federal program trying to recruit 1 million people for medical research is launching an effort to learn more about COVID-19. The Medical College of Wisconsin and some other health care outlets in the state are part of the program called All of Us

All of Us began during the Obama administration and could cost $1.5 billion nationally over a 10-year period.

READ: In Return For Some DNA, Program Promises Medicine Eventually 'Tailored To You'

So far, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has gotten about 280,000 people to sign up for All of Us. Volunteering means allowing NIH confidential access to online medical records and to provide researchers with blood and urine samples. The hope is to build a diverse biomedical database that will lead to more individualized, or precision, disease prevention, treatment and care. 

Enrollment for All of Us has been on hold for more than three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But program officials are about to start conducting antibody tests of the blood samples of at least the last 10,000 people who signed up for All of Us early this year.

Dr. Jeff Whittle, of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Credit Photo supplied by the Medical College of Wisconsin

Dr. Jeff Whittle is a professor of Medicine and the Medical College of Wisconsin's principal investigator for All of Us. He says the tests will look for antibodies, or disease-fighting proteins that formed in people who had the coronavirus at the time of giving the blood sample.

"It won't lead directly to effect treatment. It will help us to understand who are the higher-risk individuals for infection and at higher risk for becoming ill. It may help us target resources. It may help target testing. It may help us target vaccination because when a vaccine becomes available, there will be some groups that providers will be wanting to vaccinate sooner than others,” Whittle said.

Whittle also told WUWM there may be a genetic link to how humans interact with the coronavirus. "There may be markers on your cells, determined by genetics, that make you more or less likely to be infected. There may be aspects of how your immune system works, that are genetically determined, that may make you able to mount a more robust or less robust response."

Whittle says All of Us volunteers, in effect, already gave permission for their submitted blood samples to be tested for research. He says after the antibody study is conducted at Vanderbilt University, some participants may eventually be contacted for follow-up. 

As for recruiting nationally 720,000 more people for All of Us, Whittle says people can call to begin preliminary sign-up. He says The Medical College of Wisconsin will schedule local appointments to begin later this month.

Support for Innovation reporting is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman.

Do you have a question about innovation in Wisconsin that you'd like WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach to explore? Submit it below.

_