FLAGSTAFF and TUCSON, Ariz. -- April 8, 2020 -- The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope, The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University, and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona have formed a union dedicated to tracking the COVID-19 coronavirus, it was announced today.
Harnessing the power of state-of-the-art technology and "big data" analysis, researchers at the newly formed Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union (ACGU) want to better understand how this virus may be evolving, how it is transmitted, and how it is moving through the general population. This molecular epidemiological approach combines traditional epidemiology methods with evolutionary modeling based upon high-resolution analysis of the virus' genome.
ACGU will sequence samples from COVID-19 patients to analyze the virus' genetic codes, track its different strains, show where each sample originates from, where it may have been transmitted, and -- possibly -- reveal details that could provide critical information for diagnostics, anti-viral drug targets, and vaccine development.
"Only by using genomic sequencing and advanced analyses, can we begin to fully understand this disease at the molecular level, looking for keys to unlock its mysteries," said Dr. David Engelthaler, Co-Director and Associate Professor of TGen's Pathogen and Microbiome Division, the infectious disease branch in Flagstaff known as TGen North, "We have the ability to sequence the genome of every strain from every patient -- that's what we are working toward."
Dr. Engelthaler is Arizona's former State Epidemiologist and State Biodefense Coordinator. He was formerly with the CDC, and has led investigations of local, national and international disease outbreaks for over 25 years, starting with Arizona's 1993-94 hantavirus outbreak. He will coordinate the new ACGU's genomic sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
The Union's other co-founders are two of Arizona's leading infectious-disease scientists: Dr. Paul Keim and Dr. Michael Worobey.
Dr. Keim is a world expert in pathogens such as plague and anthrax. He worked with the FBI to crack the "anthrax letters" case in the wake of 9/11. At NAU, he is a Regents Professor of Biology, holds an endowed chair in Microbiology, and is Executive Director of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI). He is a Distinguished Professor at TGen, Co-Director of TGen North, and will serve as Director the ACGU.
"Genome sequences are ideal for distributed scientific research efforts and the Arizona Union will rely heavily on national and global studies to track the disease. Nevertheless, it is critical that regional experts engage in this process to maximize the benefits for Arizona citizens," said Dr. Keim.
Dr. Worobey is the head of University of Arizona's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and is world-renowned for his work on viral pandemics. Using genomic epidemiology, he has definitively tracked the origins and worldwide spread of HIV, and also determined why the 1918 "Spanish influenza" pandemic killed millions of young adults.
"Molecular analysis of viruses provides crucial clues about how pandemics begin and how to fight them," said Dr. Worobey. "We will be capitalizing upon Arizona's wealth of talent and infrastructure in this endeavor."
The Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union is similar to other groups across the globe, working to gain a foothold on this new coronavirus. Rapid sharing of data and analysis has been, and continues to be, critical to scientific, medical and public health understanding of the pandemic. Ironically, the first U.S. epicenter of COVID-19, Seattle, is also home for NextStrain, the internet home for genome tracking of this and other pathogens.
The consortium of Arizona scientists hope that their regional sequencing will give Arizona healthcare providers and public policy makers an edge in responding to this pandemic.
Like NextStrain, ACGU will make its findings public; openly available to epidemiologists and virologists worldwide.
Additional COVID-19 information
Dr. Engelthaler explains TGen's work on COVID-19 in the latest TGen Talks podcast; click here.
NAU sponsored a community forum on COVID-19, which featured Dr. Keim and other public health leaders; click here.
University of Arizona scientists, led by Dr. Worobey, outlined their views on how to take the offensive in the fight against COVID-19 in a recent op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star; click here.
About TGen, an affiliate of City of Hope
Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) is a Phoenix, Arizona-based non-profit organization dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research with life-changing results. TGen is affiliated with City of Hope, a world-renowned independent research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases: http://www.cityofhope.org. This precision medicine affiliation enables both institutes to complement each other in research and patient care, with City of Hope providing a significant clinical setting to advance scientific discoveries made by TGen. TGen is focused on helping patients with neurological disorders, cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases through cutting-edge translational research (the process of rapidly moving research toward patient benefit). TGen physicians and scientists work to unravel the genetic components of both common and complex rare diseases in adults and children. Working with collaborators in the scientific and medical communities worldwide, TGen makes a substantial contribution to help our patients through efficiency and effectiveness of the translational process. For more information, visit: http://www.tgen.org. Follow TGen on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter @TGen. Please visit: tgen.org/covid19.
About Northern Arizona University
Northern Arizona University is a higher-research institution providing exceptional educational opportunities in Arizona and beyond. NAU delivers a student-centered experience to its 31,000 in Flagstaff, statewide and online through rigorous academic programs in a supportive, inclusive and diverse environment. Dedicated, world-renowned faculty help ensure students achieve academic excellence, experience personal growth, have meaningful research opportunities and are positioned for personal and professional success.
About University of Arizona
The University of Arizona, a land-grant university with two independently accredited medical schools, is one of the nation's top public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Established in 1885, the university is widely recognized as a student-centric university and has been designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. The university ranked in the top 20 in 2018 in research expenditures among all public universities, according to the National Science Foundation, and is a leading Research 1 institution with $687 million in annual research expenditures. The university advances the frontiers of interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurial partnerships as a member of the Association of American Universities, the 65 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. It benefits the state with an estimated economic impact of $4.1 billion annually. For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university's COVID-19 webpage.
TGen Senior Science Writer
NAU Communications Officer
The University of Arizona