Precision Medicine Research Providing Potential for COVID-19 Breakthroughs

As COVID-19 research grows, new emphasis on potential individualized treatment options offers promising application of precision medicine

The COVID-19 pandemic's unprecedented force of change on traditional medical device and therapeutics development has brought fresh perspectives and new opportunities for precision medicine partnerships. With COVID-19, precision medicine focuses on better understanding of how and why the coronavirus affects different individuals in different ways. This in turn indicates types of treatments that can be targeted toward biological pathways that vary between individuals.

One example of advancement in precision medicine as a result of the pandemic is the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics. SAPPT is an organization founded in late 2019 by San Antonio's four largest research institutions. The organization's goal is to develop research that "leads to breakthrough treatments that can be individualized to specific patient populations."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, SAPPT has focused on promoting precision medicine research that may provide COVID-19 related therapeutics. Late summer of 2020, the SAPPT announced three grants totaling $600,000 that would be provided to three different research initiatives that are examining using precision medicine to create COVID-19 treatments.

Three New Precision Medicine Research Initiatives Rising Out of COVID-19

1. The first of these initiatives to receive funding was for a team at Texas Biomed, led by Diako Ebrahimi, PhD. Ebrahimi's team is studying the role of a protein called furin that is potentially impacting individual responses to COVID-19. There are indications that furin may be related to increased risk of death from COVID-19 for individuals with underlying cardiovascular problems. Better understanding the role of furin and the unique effects it may have on certain individuals may help to develop patient-specific therapeutics that can be used to treat COVID-19.

"While we're talking about COVID-19 specifically in this research, the implications are much farther reaching," Larry Schlesinger, MD, a physician scientist and President and CEO of Texas Biomed, said about the research project. "We can use what we learn here and apply that knowledge to combatting the next novel coronavirus, HIV and other infectious diseases. This study has a true precision therapy goal, since it aims to understand why certain individuals have greater severity of disease and why specific underlying conditions affect outcomes." 

2. A team at University of Texas (UT) Health San Antonio is performing the second research initiative. This team, led by Dmitri Ivanov, PhD, is examining how the COVID-19 virus evades the body's immune system and is able to block certain aspects of the immune system in some individuals. The team's goal is "to identify antiviral compounds either among existing FDA-approved treatments or in vast libraries of drug-like molecules that could effectively combat the ability of the virus to evade our immune defenses."

3. The third of the SAPPT-funded projects is led by Yogesh Gupta, PhD, also of UT Health San Antonio. Gupta's team is studying specific pathways that allow the COVID-19 virus to evade the human immune system. This will allow researchers to understand how the disease caused by the virus behaves differently in different people. Studies here may lead to new, individualized treatment options.

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is partnering with the UT on this project. "This virus causes disease with varied effects, from asymptomatic and mild symptoms for some infected persons to more severe symptoms that require hospitalization and intubation in others," said Adam Hamilton, PE, President and CEO of SwRI. "And of course, in some unfortunate cases, the disease may lead to the patient's death. In addition, COVID-19 seems to impact some parts of our community harder than others. Part of the SAPPT role is to work to find ways to prevent and treat this disease for all of our community."

As hospital administrators monitor the benefits that precision medicine offers their patients, they should be aware that the time and energy being invested into COVID-19 related research will serve as a catalyst for the advancement of precision medicine technology.

-Caleb Williams

Related Information:

Diako Ebrahimi, PhD

Larry Schlesinger, MD

Dmitri Ivanov, PhD

Yogesh Gupta, PhD

Adam Hamilton, PE

San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics

San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics fuels COVID-19 research