MUSC prepares biorepository of COVID-19 samples for research

April 23, 2020
Patrick Flume speaks to someone off camera while standing in a lab
Dr. Patrick Flume is heading up an effort to develop a biorepository of COVID-19 samples. Photo by Sarah Pack

Doctors and researchers are faced with innumerable questions about the novel coronavirus. As a novel, or new, virus to humans, SARS-CoV-2 is still mysterious. How exactly is it attacking? Why do some people get mild, barely noticeable cases while other previously healthy people end up intubated in intensive care units? How does the immune system respond to this virus, and how does it exacerbate existing health conditions? 

“The only way you could answer these questions is to have biospecimens from people who were exposed or known to have COVID,” said Patrick Flume, M.D., a pulmonologist and co-principal investigator of the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research (SCTR) Institute, who is heading up a project to develop a biorepository of COVID-19 samples for research.

The samples will be housed at the SCTR Nexus Laboratory and available to researchers at institutions across the state.

Currently, the team has access to the nasopharyngeal swabs that have been used to test people for COVID-19. Flume hopes to be able to collect other types of samples, including urine, saliva and blood, and to collect them at different points throughout the infection timeline.

“For some questions, you might want to have a blood sample from someone who was just recently infected, whereas some information is more interesting after they’ve recovered from the infection to see what their response is,” Flume said.

Amy Gandy is the research laboratory manager. She’s been preparing at breakneck speed to begin receiving and handling samples in a safe manner, noting that workers in the lab will need additional personal protective equipment.

The Epic Research team can help identify potential donors to the biorepository and assist with pulling details from the medical record while maintaining patients’ anonymity so that researchers can delve into questions of risk factors, potential protective factors, or the length of time that passes between diagnosis and onset of symptoms, for starters, Flume said.

“We need to be better prepared for how to manage pandemic infections like this,” Flume said. “We need the testing available to know how these infections spread, how we can protect our patients better and to do it in a way that doesn’t require we shut down our entire economy.”

Building this biorepository is important for dealing with COVID-19, but it’s also about building an infrastructure to help us respond appropriately to the next epidemic or pandemic.

“The smarter we are with this now, hopefully the better prepared we could be with this the next time around,” Flume said.