Coronavirus: the MEDTEC students’ research project
If there is one area that has been able to thrive under COVID-19, that is undoubtedly the scientific research. One example of this is the new research project conducted by students from the MEDTEC School at Humanitas University during the second semester of the 2021-2022 academic year. The project was aimed at second-year students attending the ‘Molecular and Computational Biology and Medical Genetics’ course. The research work was coordinated by Professor Rosanna Asselta associate professor of Medical Genetics and deputy director of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, and Professor Stefano Duga professor of Biology.
“The ‘Molecular and Computational Biology and Medical Genetics’ course is in its first year and we thought it would be interesting to offer the students practical activities involving the use of real data for research thereby putting into practice what they had learnt during the lectures. In addition, we wanted to give this project a specific focus and, as we are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, we opted to look more closely at the role of the genes involved in the coagulation process. As we know, the thrombotic aspect is very important in the pathogenesis of clinically relevant forms of COVID-19,’ explains Professor Duga. The thirty students who took part in this project were responsible for analysing thirty-two haemostasis genes: in other words, each student analyzed in depth a specific gene.
“We provided students with the data collected from patients affected by SARS-CoV-2 and hospitalised at Humanitas Research Hospital in Rozzano, at Gavazzeni Hospital in Bergamo and at San Gerardo Hospital in Monza. In addition, 1,700 subjects from the general population served as controls. Our students had a large dataset sorted by chromosomes, which made data management easier”, Professor Asselta explains. “In fact, the dataset comprised a total of about eight million nucleotide variants in the genome for each of two thousand analyzed individuals, of which 332 were severe cases of COVID-19”.
The research project aimed to look for imbalances in the frequency of certain variants between cases and controls. “If an imbalance is found,” explain Duga and Asselta, “then it is plausible that such specific variant (polymorphism) is associated with the disease.” Among the most interesting results is the one involving at least four of the 32 selected genes: “It appears that specific variants in these four genes lead to an increased risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. On this basis, we constructed a polygenic score (a kind of ‘score’ based on the presence of genetic risk variants) to classify patients according to their genetic risk of developing a severe form of the disease. We found that patients who have four predisposing variants are two and a half times more likely to contract a severe form of COVID-19 than the general population.
One of the most exciting things for the students was that, the results of this research project, have been published in the international Journal of Personalized Medicine with their names among the authors, a great achievement for second-year medical students.