Aidan M. Nikiforuk, PhD (2022) and C. Andrew Basham, PhD (2021).
Graduate students across all educational programs at the School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) are working on diverse and important public health issues. In our new series, we will be hearing directly from current students and recent graduates about what they are working on, why it matters, and how their training at SPPH has prepared them to meet the research and professional challenges of tomorrow.
Tell us about your recent publication:
In the last year, we have worked as part of a multidisciplinary team supported by the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, Genome British Columbia, the UBC Faculty of Medicine and School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) to answer important public health questions on the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19.
Our recent article in EBioMedicine by the Lancet discusses the relationship between SARS-CoV-2 and the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is a molecule the virus uses to target and gain entrance into human cells.
The importance of ACE2 caught our attention as it is essential for SARS-CoV-2 viral infection and otherwise plays an important role in cardiovascular health. Our hypothesis was that persons with more ACE2 would produce higher amounts of SARS-CoV-2 during infection. Viral abundance has implications for both transmission and severity of disease.
We used a molecular test to measure the amount of ACE2 present in nasal swab samples collected from persons who were tested for COVID-19 in British Columbia.
We found that at least two types of ACE2 are made by our cells, membrane ACE2 projects from the cell surface and benefits viral infection. On the other hand, soluble ACE2 exists in a free form and may prevent viral infection by binding to the virus before it contacts a cell.
This finding is complementary to previous ACE2 research done by Canadian researchers at UBC, who have developed a soluble ACE2 based therapeutic for SARS-Cov-2 infection.
We hope that our findings benefit understanding of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus transmits between hosts, causes severe disease and support the funding/acceptance of soluble ACE2 as a COVID-19 treatment option.
How did your training at SPPH prepare you to conduct this research?
Training at UBC SPPH and support from our mentors Drs. Agatha Jassem, Inna Sekirov, and David Patrick was essential to conduct this research during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our SPPH education provided us with a foundation of public health knowledge, which we used to frame our research question, build the study sample, and analyze the data. Epidemiology and biostatistics training from senior SPPH instructors Mike Marin and Dr. Ehsan Karim was invaluable in guiding our analysis and proper interpretation of the results. We would like to thank all the members of our multidisciplinary team, co-first authors from UBC Pathology and Laboratory Medicine (Kevin Kuchinski and Dr. David Twa), SPPH instructors, Genome BC and the researchers who have worked before us to build knowledge of ACE2.
What else are you working on right now?
In the next year, we will be continuing our ACE2 research program funded by Genome BC. We will be using targeted sequencing technology in partnership with surveillance and administrative data to help further understand the role of nasal ACE2 expression in the transmission and severity of COVID-19.
In my research on tuberculosis survivor health, I have published four doctoral thesis chapters (cause-specific mortality, cardiovascular disease, airway disease, and depression, among TB survivors) and am preparing for oral defense. I intend to transition from TB survivorship research into cancer survivorship research in a post-doctoral fellowship. I have applied to the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research to study childhood and young adulthood cancer survivors’ long-term mental health outcomes later in life using health administrative data and causal inference methods. In my post-doctoral fellowship, I intend to develop “survivorship epidemiology” as an area of epidemiology, where diseases and their diagnostic and treatment processes are the exposures of interest. I am open to post-doctoral opportunities and invite anyone interested in this subject to contact me directly.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @CAndrewBasham and Aidan at @NikiforukAidan