Hawaii startup LifeDNA, University of Hawaii to study role of genetics in infection severity

Study explores why certain racial and ethnic groups are more prone to infection and may suffer a more severe course of COVID-19.


Personal genomics startup LifeDNA has initiated a coronavirus study aimed at understanding why certain individuals and racial or ethnic groups are more prone to the infection and may suffer a more severe course of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has upended daily life for citizens around the globe,” said CEO Cyril Moukarzel. “Based on genetics, certain individuals and populations may be impacted more severely. LifeDNA’s scientists are working tirelessly to add to the body of knowledge regarding the effect of these genetic variations.”

The company is collaborating with molecular epidemiologist Maarit Tiirikainen, Associate Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The study will initially focus on the multi-ethnic population of Hawaii and genetic variants of the ACE2 gene as they relate to infection with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19.

Maarit Tiirikainen

“There have been major differences in the rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection and the severe disease between the different geographic regions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even among young individuals,” Tiirikainen said. “Epidemiological studies—so-called Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS)—indicate that populations carry different variants of the ACE2 gene. This variation in the gene coding for the ACE2 receptor may have an effect on the number of ACE2 receptors on the lung cells, as well as on how effectively the virus binds to the receptor.

“There may also be genetic differences in immune and other important genes explaining why some people get more sick than others,” she added.

For more than three years, LifeDNA has been utilizing published GWAS data to provide reports on the association of genetic variants to various human traits. In this global health crisis, LifeDNA will focus its scientific resources on determining why certain individuals and ethnic populations seem more prone to the SARS-CoV-2 infection and may also have a more severe course of the COVID-19 disease.

The differences in the severity of the disease may also have an effect on future lung cancer incidences in different populations, especially when augmented by smoking.

The genotyping for the study will be done at the Kakaako Genomics and Bioinformatics Shared Resource (co-directed by Tiirikainen and Youping Deng, professor of quantitative health sciences at the UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine) at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.

LifeDNA expects that the findings of its study will allow for identifying the most vulnerable individuals and populations ahead of time in future SARS virus-family outbreaks. The company also envisions pharmacogenomics collaborations on life-enhancing and lifesaving preventive therapeutics, such as those utilizing CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology.

About the University of Hawaii Cancer Center

The UH Cancer Center, through its various activities including scientific research and clinical trials, adds more than $54 million to the Oahu economy. It is one of only 71 research institutions designated by the National Cancer Institute. Affiliated with the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, the Center is dedicated to eliminating cancer through research, education, patient care and community outreach with an emphasis on the unique ethnic, cultural, and environmental characteristics of Hawaii and the Pacific. Learn more at uhcancercenter.org.

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