Tampa General Hospital’s Esoteric Research Lab, in collaboration with USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, is one of the only hospital laboratories in the state that is currently performing in-house sequencing tests to identify and track COVID-19 variants.
“Tampa General’s commitment to science and discovery is crucial as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic,” said John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital. “This kind of innovative push for answers will be a vital part of helping us learn more about these new variants and how they differ from the original virus.”
In September 2020, Tampa General’s Esoteric Research Lab began exploring the idea of identifying the presence of variants in COVID-19 patients. “This was before variants were widely talked about,” said Dr. Suzane Silbert, scientific director for Tampa General’s Clinical and Esoteric Research labs. “Innovation can begin with a single question.”
Tampa General’s Esoteric Research Lab deals with the detection of infectious diseases, uses laser-based technology to diagnose cancers, participates in studies and clinical research trials, and implements advanced testing procedures.
The lab team researched available procedures and identified a protocol to use for sequencing from samples already collected as part of the hospital’s COVID-19 testing of patients.
“There isn’t a commercial test available for sequencing SARS-CoV-2. We worked on validating the best protocols,” Silbert said.
The procedure for sequencing COVID-19 variants includes three different steps. It takes about four days to obtain results. By November, the TGH team was running variant sequencing tests.
“Sequencing the virus is vitally important in the fight against COVID-19. It is the nature of viruses to mutate. To beat the pandemic, we must know the variants, especially those that are truly concerning. It is a way to identify and understand the variants circulating in our community. It’s how we know that the UK variant has become the dominant COVID-19 variant in the United States,” said Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, medical director of Tampa General’s Global Emerging Diseases Institute and assistant professor of infectious disease at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. “We always have to stay one step ahead of the variants of any virus, and our ability to sequence gives us the knowledge to do that. As we continue to fight this virus, we are all learning from each other.”
Tampa General’s Esoteric Research Lab received crucial assistance in the form of a donation for additional variant sequencing instruments through the Tampa General Hospital Foundation this year.
“A generous donation from the foundation allowed us to purchase additional leading-edge equipment and greatly increase our testing capacity by more than 500 percent,” Couris said. “We are deeply grateful for their support.”
Once the complex sequence is completed, the information is loaded into GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data), a global research network that promotes the rapid sharing of data from COVID-19 variants and helps to understand the escalating rise of new variants around the world. This allows the mapping of specific variants in defined communities.
Tampa General is now exploring applying the techniques and knowledge gained through the sequencing project beyond the coronavirus.
“As we look to the future, we believe that it is possible to extend this technology into other infectious diseases, as well as cancer. As medicine becomes individualized, we can tailor treatments to specific disease mutations. We’re on the path to the next level of advancements in healthcare,” Lakshmi said.
Tampa General Hospital, a 1,007-bed nonprofit academic medical center, is one of the largest hospitals in America. For more information, visit www.tgh.org.