WHAT IS GEMS?
GEMS, or Genomics to Enhance Microbial Screening, is a new National Institute of Health and care Research (NIHR) funded blood and transplant research unit (BRTU). It is directed by Professor Peter Simmonds (University of Oxford) and involves laboratories based at the University of Oxford and University College London (UCL) alongside close collaboration with NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT). The unit has been funded for 5 years, until April 2027.
WHY DO WE NEED GEMS?
Blood and organ donation are critical in treating patients with a whole host of conditions. Caution must however be taken in case the donations contain microbes such as viruses and bacteria that can be passed on to the recipient and cause illness. Although routine screening is carried out (https://www.blood.co.uk/the-donation-process/further-information/tests-we-carry-out/), this is not perfect. Not only can pathogens sometimes pass through undetected, donated samples, particularly from ethnic minority groups, are potentially excluded unnecessarily.
AIMS OF GEMS?
GEMS has been set up to evaluate the risk of, and provide solutions for, the transmission of potentially detrimental microbes in donated samples. We will employ technological advances in a group of methods termed High Throughput Sequencing (HTS) to detect and genetically characterise pathogens present in donor samples. As well as studying emerging microbes of interest, such as the virus that causes COVID-19 (SarsCoV2), we will assess whether these methods can improve screening for known viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B virus. Importantly we aim to develop methods that better differentiate potentially infectious and non-infectious donors so that more effective use of donated blood and organs can be achieved.
Another key aim of the unit is to establish an ever-growing bioarchive of blood and organ donor samples that can provide a resource for immediate large-scale investigation of the UK population for novel microbes of concern. Such examples include SarsCoV2 and various mosquito-borne pathogens such as West Nile virus which are encroaching into Northern Europe as a result of climate change.
Beyond blood and organ donation, this work can inform the safety of stem cell-derived products, a revolutionary new technology pioneered by NHSBT for generating differentiated cells and tissues from stem cells for clinical use.