MTU gets funding to expand state sequencing for virus

HOUGHTON — Michigan Tech University is one of four Michigan universities that will receive CDC funding over the next two years to boost the state’s capacity to collect and analyze genetic data about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases to improve the state’s ability to respond.

Tech, Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Wayne State University will receive $18.5 million for the Michigan Sequencing Academic Partnership for Public Health Innovation and Response (MI-SAPPHIRE) project, which will include sequencing genomes for SARS-Cov-2 and other diseases with potential to spread, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday. That will enable the state to get a faster picture of the emergence of variants such as omicron, MDDHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance and need for genomic sequencing, surveillance and epidemiology capacity both globally and right here in Michigan,” she said in a statement. “The MDHHS Bureau of Laboratories has rapidly expanded its efforts to identify COVID-19 variants since the start of the pandemic to support public health actions. MI-SAPPHIRE will allow our state to expand sequencing and analysis capacity and the number of pathogens that undergo routine sequencing, and ensure we are sampling diverse geographic areas across the state.”

The state lab has sequenced 23,000 COVID-19 samples since March 2020. The University of Michigan lab has also conducted sequencing throughout the pandemic to provide information about COVID-19 variants, the MDHHS said.

“It will be extremely great to have all four universities now having the sequencing capacity, where, in the past, most of the sequencing had been done by the state lab alone,” said Caryn Heldt, director of the Health Research Institute at Tech and leader of the new sequencing lab. Heldt said Tech’s experience running a COVID-19 testing lab on campus was likely a factor in the selection. About 20 faculty, students and technicians will be part of the project.

Each university will help with sequencing; what they do with that sequencing will depend on their strengths, Heldt said.

Through Tech’s School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences will give the university particular expertise in diseases animals transit to humans, Heldt said. The College of Computing will also provide computational infrastructure for data processing and storing.

“These are really large datasets, so we have to store, catalog and evaluate all these genomic sequences,” she said.

The College of Science and Art and the College of Engineering are also involved. Both this project and the COVID testing lab have involved collaboration across the university, Heldt said.

“There’s not a lot of overlap on who’s gonna be working in the sequencing lab and who’s working in the COVID lab,” Heldt said. “So it’s just been an amazing experience for me to be helping lead both of these projects, where we are just able to look across the university, find the expertise we need, and have such great input and interest from different researchers across the university.”

Tech will build a larger sequencing lab with more equipment, and will work with local providers such as the health department and local hospitals to create a pipeline for samples, Heldt said.

The universities will be able to sequence any potential new threats that come up, as well as pathogens already known to exist in the community. Locally, that will include drug-resistant gonorrhea, which has been identified in the Upper Peninsula, as well as zoonotic diseases such as the avian flu, Heldt said.

“We look forward to working with local healthcare providers in the health department as we develop this sequencing capability, and we really look forward to continuing to support our community in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and any future needs,” she said. “Michigan Tech is honored to be such an important resource for the community.”


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