Fixed on a Cure: A Trove of COVID-19 Bio-Samples and Data to Support New Research

April 28, 2020

The COVID-19 global pandemic might have forced an abrupt ramp down of research laboratories across U.S. academic institutions and medical centers, but at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and across Columbia University, research activities targeting the novel coronavirus have ramped up at a rapid pace. 

In less than a month, HICCC researchers have swiftly transformed their innovative research and discoveries in cancer to address COVID-19. The outbreak has also fueled volunteer scientists to work together and assist with the surging COVID-19 response across Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). A weekly virtual symposium for Columbia researchers to exchange COVID-19 ideas internally held its first session on April 1, and it garnered some 900 attendees.

To help support the COVID-19 research surge, CUIMC, together with support from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, established and quickly opened the new Columbia COVID-19 Biobank. The biobank, which partly involved the leadership of several HICCC members, has been up and running for just three weeks, providing to researchers a comprehensive bio-repository of blood and tissue samples of COVID-19 patients that are linked to genome sequencing and extracted clinical and electronic health data. The idea is to lend immediate support, and invaluable resources, to investigators working on COVID-19 projects, and have infrastructure set up across the medical center and the main Columbia campus to this end.

“COVID-19 hit us hard in March. We ramped down our research like everyone else,” says Muredach Reilly, MBBCh, member of the Precision Oncology & Systems Biology program at the HICCC and director of the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. “But we quickly realized there is a huge need to try and actually study COVID-19 in real-time, and comprehensively, whether we conduct observational studies or precision medicine approach, potentially leading to new therapies.”

Rapid response

The COVID-19 Biobank’s executive committee, co-led by Dr. Reilly and Dr. Michael Shelanski, senior vice dean for research at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, worked quickly to open the shared resource, with key support from the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology and its chair, Dr. Kevin Roth. Plans for centralized biobanking had already been in the works in collaboration with the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and the NIH’s All of Us research program. Fortunately, the foundation was in place to launch a wide-scale institutional biobank, grounded in patient participation and samples, to support Columbia research for COVID-19.

“We were ready to go live with the centralized biobank on March 1, but then COVID-19 happened,” says Jennifer Williamson, associate vice dean for research policy and scientific strategy at CUIMC, who also is a member of the biobank team. “All of our pre-planning for a university-wide biobank played in our favor. We were ready to pivot our attention to support critical COVID-19 research."

By April 1, the COVID-19 Biobank enrolled its first patient. To date, patient coordinators for the biobank have contacted 1,800 COVID-19 patients and almost 400 have already completed an e-consent form. These patients either had minor symptoms, were treated, and discharged, or had more severe complications, like respiratory problems, and have recovered from a stay in the intensive care unit.

“We’re adding to our patient protocol week by week,” says Dr. Reilly. “We’re finding that individuals who are COVID-positive are very receptive to participating. People want to get involved and be a part of the solution.”

The goal is to move quickly in order to keep pace with investigators’ requests for COVID-19 samples and patient data.

“We meet weekly with our genomics committee to explore how we move forward with DNA and RNA genomics studies,” adds Dr. Reilly. “We will begin genetic (DNA) and transcriptomic (RNA) sequencing on the first few hundred participants this month. We’re looking to understand as quickly as possible the constitutional genetic and host cell transcriptomic response and contribution to the marked variation in clinical outcomes in this new disease.”

Supporting COVID-19 research across disciplines

The COVID-19 Biobank is a result of close collaboration among faculty and administrators across several CUIMC schools and institutes, crossing expertise areas, including bioinformatics, infectious disease, pathology, and systems biology.

The Department of Pathology and Cell Biology has established a COVID-19 clinical pathological laboratory and has been facilitating access to residual clinical samples. For one, the Molecular Pathology Shared Resource (MPSR), led by HICCC member Hanina Hibshoosh, MD, is working tirelessly with the new biobank to collect, analyze, and freeze tissues and organ samples from COVID-19 positive surgical patients, autopsies, and placentas from both cancer and non-cancer patients. Many faculty are collaborating on the research front.

“We are all leaning in at a really critical time,” says Dr. Hibshoosh, professor of pathology and cell biology and founding director of the MPSR. “Our work has always been pressing and important but this gives it immediate urgency.”

Having a biobank devoted to COVID-19 means ultimately having a repository of clinical residual samples that runs the gamut, coupled with survey data and electronic health data, and linked back to consented individual patients for genetics studies and wide sharing of data and findings today and in the future.

“When a researcher asks a question like ‘how many patients who had COVID-19 had renal failure’, our biobank can provide the bio- and sequencing samples for this cohort,” explains Williamson. “We can ask a question like that and be able to answer it and help the researcher get access to the data they need.”

Biobank’s future

The new Columbia Biobank for COVID-19 is more than a necessary effort to centralize biobanking—health and genomics data—it is a collective call to action at a time when scientists are propelled to work on a common, pressing crisis. The biobank executive committee intends for the resource to expand post-COVID. 

“None of us have experienced anything like this, nothing like the massive onslaught in the number of cases and how quickly the pandemic has hit us,” says Dr. Reilly.  “This is a unique situation, and the response at the University level, clinical level, and across disciplines to support COVID-19 research has been very impressive. We expect this to change the culture going forward of how people work together.”

“It is inspiring to work at an institution that is not only bravely caring for COVID-19 patients on the front lines,” adds Williamson, “but is actively being part of the long-term solution.”