Differential chromatin accessibility in peripheral blood mononuclear cells underlies COVID-19 disease severity prior to seroconversion.


SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers profound and variable immune responses in human hosts. Chromatin remodeling has been observed in individuals severely ill or convalescing with COVID-19, but chromatin remodeling early in disease prior to anti-spike protein IgG seroconversion has not been defined. We performed the Assay for Transposase-Accessible Chromatin using sequencing (ATAC-seq) and RNA-seq on peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from outpatients with mild or moderate symptom severity at different stages of clinical illness. Early in the disease course prior to IgG seroconversion, modifications in chromatin accessibility associated with mild or moderate symptoms were already robust and included severity-associated changes in accessibility of genes in interleukin signaling, regulation of cell differentiation and cell morphology. Furthermore, single-cell analyses revealed evolution of the chromatin accessibility landscape and transcription factor motif accessibility for individual PBMC cell types over time. The most extensive remodeling occurred in CD14+ monocytes, where sub-populations with distinct chromatin accessibility profiles were observed prior to seroconversion. Mild symptom severity was marked by upregulation of classical antiviral pathways, including those regulating IRF1 and IRF7, whereas in moderate disease, these classical antiviral signals diminished, suggesting dysregulated and less effective responses. Together, these observations offer novel insight into the epigenome of early mild SARS-CoV-2 infection and suggest that detection of chromatin remodeling in early disease may offer promise for a new class of diagnostic tools for COVID-19.





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Publication Info

Giroux, Nicholas S, Shengli Ding, Micah T McClain, Thomas W Burke, Elizabeth Petzold, Hong A Chung, Grecia O Rivera, Ergang Wang, et al. (2022). Differential chromatin accessibility in peripheral blood mononuclear cells underlies COVID-19 disease severity prior to seroconversion. Scientific reports, 12(1). p. 11714. 10.1038/s41598-022-15668-8 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25585.

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Micah Thomas McClain

Associate Professor of Medicine

Thomas Norton Denny

Professor in Medicine

Thomas N. Denny, MSc, M.Phil, is the Chief Operating Officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI), Associate Dean for Duke Research and Discovery @RTP, and a Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Duke University Medical Center. He is also an Affiliate Member of the Duke Global Health Institute. Previously, he served on the Health Sector Advisory Council of the Duke University Fuquay School of Business. Prior to joining Duke, he was an Associate Professor of Pathology, Laboratory Medicine and Pediatrics, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health and Assistant Dean for Research in Health Policy at the New Jersey Medical School, Newark, New Jersey. He has served on numerous committees for the NIH over the last two decades and currently is the principal investigator of an NIH portfolio in excess of 65 million dollars. Mr. Denny was a 2002-2003 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM). As a fellow, he served on the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee with legislation/policy responsibilities in global AIDS, bioterrorism, clinical trials/human subject protection and vaccine related-issues.

As the Chief Operating Officer of the DHVI, Mr. Denny has senior oversight of the DHVI research portfolio and the units/teams that support the DHVI mission. He has extensive international experience and previously was a consultant to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) project to oversee the development of an HIV and Public Health Center of Excellence laboratory network in Guyana. In September 2004, the IOM appointed him as a consultant to their Board on Global Health Committee studying the options for overseas placement of U.S. health professionals and the development of an assessment plan for activities related to the 2003 PEPFAR legislative act. In the 1980s, Mr. Denny helped establish a small laboratory in the Republic of Kalmykia (former Soviet Union) to improve the care of children with HIV/AIDS and served as a Board Member of the Children of Chernobyl Relief Fund Foundation. In 2005, Mr. Denny was named a consulting medical/scientific officer to the WHO Global AIDS Program in Geneva. He has also served as program reviewers for the governments of the Netherlands and South Africa as well as an advisor to several U.S. biotech companies. He currently serves as the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for Grid Biosciences.

Mr. Denny has authored and co-authored more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and serves on the editorial board of Communications in Cytometry and Journal of Clinical Virology. He holds an M.Sc in Molecular and Biomedical Immunology from the University of East London and a degree in Medical Law (M.Phil) from the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine, School of Law, University of Glasgow. In 1991, he completed a course of study in Strategic Management at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. In 1993, he completed the Program for Advanced Training in Biomedical Research Management at Harvard School of Public Health. In December 2005, he was inducted as a Fellow into the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical society in the US.

While living in New Jersey, Mr. Denny was active in his community, gaining additional experience from two publicly elected positions. In 2000, Mr. Denny was selected by the New Jersey League of Municipalities to Chair the New Jersey Community Mental Health Citizens’ Advisory Board and Mental Health Planning Council as a gubernatorial appointment.


Lisa L Satterwhite

Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Molecular epidemiology of environmental exposures, pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s disease, Cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms and ALS, and creating climate change resilient rural communities.


Emily Ray Ko

Assistant Professor of Medicine

Clinical and translational research, COVID-19 therapeutics, clinical biomarkers for infectious disease.


Bryan David Kraft

Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine

Dr. Kraft has a wide variety of clinical and research interests, including sepsis, pneumonia, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and has special expertise in rare lung diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary alveolar proteinosis (PAP). PAP can be congenital, hereditary, autoimmune, or due to occupational exposures (e.g. dusts, fibers, silica).

Dr. Kraft performs whole lung lavage (WLL) at Duke in a state-of-the art hyperbaric chamber within the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology. Performing WLL with hyperbaric oxygen (when necessary) augments oxygen delivery during the procedure, meaning both lungs can be lavaged on the same day, during a single episode of anesthesia.

Dr. Kraft’s research laboratory is devoted to understanding mechanisms of acute lung injury resolution, and uses translational models and clinical patient samples to identify novel pathways of recovery. Dr. Kraft is also an active investigator in clinical trials to develop new therapies for patients with lung diseases.



Ephraim Tsalik

Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine

My research at Duke has focused on understanding the dynamic between host and pathogen so as to discover and develop host-response markers that can diagnose and predict health and disease.  This new and evolving approach to diagnosing illness has the potential to significantly impact individual as well as public health considering the rise of antibiotic resistance.

With any potential infectious disease diagnosis, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine at the time of presentation what the underlying cause of illness is.  For example, acute respiratory illness is among the most frequent reasons for patients to seek care. These symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, and fever may be due to a bacterial infection, viral infection, both, or a non-infectious condition such as asthma or allergies.  Given the difficulties in making the diagnosis, most patients are inappropriately given antibacterials.  However, each of these etiologies (bacteria, virus, or something else entirely) leaves a fingerprint embedded in the host’s response. We are very interested in finding those fingerprints and exploiting them to generate new approaches to understand, diagnose, and manage disease.

These principles also apply to sepsis, defined as life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by a dysregulated host response to infection. Just as with acute respiratory illness, it is often difficult to identify whether infection is responsible for a patient’s critical illness.  We have embarked on a number of research programs that aim to better identify sepsis; define sepsis subtypes that can be used to guide future clinical research; and to better predict sepsis outcomes.  These efforts have focused on many systems biology modalities including transcriptomics, miRNA, metabolomics, and proteomics.  Consequently, our Data Science team has utilized these highly complex data to develop new statistical methods, furthering both the clinical and statistical research communities.

These examples are just a small sampling of the breadth of research Dr. Tsalik and his colleagues have conducted.  

In April 2022, Dr. Tsalik has joined Danaher Diagnostics as the VP and Chief Scientific Officer for Infectious Disease, where he is applying this experience in biomarkers and diagnostics to shape the future of diagnostics in ID. 


Xiling Shen

Adjunct Professor in the Department of Pathology

Dr. Shen’s research interests lie at precision medicine and systems biology. His lab integrates engineering, computational and biological techniques to study cancer, stem cells, microbiota and the nervous system in the gut. This multidisciplinary work has been instrumental in initiating several translational clinical trials in precision therapy. He is the director of the Woo Center for Big Data and Precision Health (DAP) and a core member of the Center for Genomics and Computational Biology (GCB).


Christopher Wildrick Woods

Wolfgang Joklik Distinguished Professor of Global Health

1. Emerging Infections
2. Global Health
3. Epidemiology of infectious diseases
4. Clinical microbiology and diagnostics
5. Bioterrorism Preparedness
6. Surveillance for communicable diseases
7. Antimicrobial resistance

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