Brazilian scientist at Yale continues research on genomic variations amid the pandemic

Even with the restrictions on face-to-face interaction and laboratory study introduced by the coronavirus, Fábio Navarro, a research scientist from Brazil, is continuing to carry out genome research at Yale.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the suspension of academic activities in classrooms worldwide, some lines of research are able to proceed. This is the case with the activities of the genomics laboratory at the School of Medicine at Yale University, which focuses its activities on analysis and computational models.

As a result, Navarro has not experienced substantial changes in his work routine. “The laboratory itself is completely closed; only two people are allowed to enter the building. But as a researcher, I can continue to do most of my analysis at home – alongside activities with my family,” he said.

Navarro has a degree in Computer Engineering from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), and a PhD from the Institute of Biochemistry of the University of São Paulo (USP). His practical experience is considerable; after having worked as a developer at the National Center for Research and Development of Agricultural Instrumentation (CNPDIA) of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), Navarro worked at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (from 2009 to 2010) and, during his doctorate, at the Molecular Oncology Center of Hospital Sírio-Libanês (from 2011 to 2014). He has been pursuing his studies at Yale for the last five years.

Navarro’s current research is aimed at understanding how genomic variations result in the diversity of genetic characteristics of individuals, populations, and species. “We try to understand how variations in the human genome are associated with gene expression and how these impact phenotypes of an individual,” he said.

Navarro uses computational methodologies and genomic sequencing technologies to investigate genomes and is currently leading the EN-TEx project, a project that brings together more than ten laboratories across the United States. He explained, “We are trying to characterize the epigenome of different human tissues – that is, to understand how genes are regulated in different tissues.”

Use in Medicine
The practical applications of this line of research are extremely relevant, having the potential to identify genomic variants that may be associated with specific diseases or conditions. In an article published in the journal Science, Navarro and his colleagues described the links between these variations and diseases such as schizophrenia and autism. “None of these variants have a huge impact on their own, but cumulatively they can increase a person’s risk of, for example, Alzheimer’s disease,” he added.

Navarro, who is monitoring research involving the possible use of genomics to combat the new coronavirus, explained that theoretically the determination of genomic variants could contribute to the discovery of elements that increase or reduce an individual’s predisposition to be infected with a virus such as SARS-CoV-2. “There is some research on this subject, but only a few have been published or peer-reviewed. Research along these lines is still at a very preliminary stage. But, in theory, it would be possible,” he said.

Valorization of Science
According to Navarro, the current situation brought about by the new coronavirus pandemic highlights the importance of investing in science. “Brazil today has very well-prepared scientists that are tackling many aspects of the new virus. But we lack a large enough community to be able to respond to huge challenges imposed by the COVID-19, in an efficient way – we depend a lot on what is produced abroad. Of course, collaboration is essential, but it would be great if Brazil had the structure to respond to this type of situation,” he explained.

When Navarro began his postdoctoral studies at Yale, biologist Átila Iamarino – now known for addressing the proliferation of the new coronavirus and criticizing the politicization of the fight against COVID-19 in Brazil – was concluding his stay at the university. Currently, Iamarino is one of the voices calling for more investments in the production of science in Brazil, an effort Navarro supports. “If you do not invest in science, or if you interrupt scholarship programs in basic science, applied science, or social sciences, there is no way to prepare society to face challenges,” he said.