Big Data

For Better Hearts


Interview with Elias Allara

Dr Elias Allara

Research Associate

Department of Public Health and Primary Care

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom


Background: Elias Allara is a public health doctor trained in epidemiology and medical statistics. He completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine/ Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit, focusing on the effects of blood donation and iron homeostasis on cardiometabolic outcomes. Elias previously completed specialty training in public health medicine at the University of Turin and is currently an honorary consultant at Public Health England. 

His postdoctoral work is performed as part of the BigData@Heart initiative at the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit and in close collaboration with the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit in Donor Health and Genomics.


Q : Elias, please tell us a bit about yourself.

A: I am a medical doctor trained in public health, the branch of medicine focused on investigating and addressing risk factors at the population level. After completing my medical training in Italy, I moved to the United Kingdom in 2015 to begin a PhD at the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit of Cambridge University, where I am currently employed as a research associate. I am also an honorary consultant at Public Health England, one of the four national public health agencies in the UK.


Q : How did you get involved in BigData@Heart?

A: I was looking for opportunities to stay in academia and keep working on topics similar to those of my PhD, which focused on the effects of blood donation and iron homeostasis on cardiometabolic outcomes. I thought that the BigData@Heart collaboration offered a fantastic opportunity to work on these topics and keep learning from global leaders in the fields of data science and cardiovascular epidemiology. These include researchers actively involved in BigData@Heart, such as my line manager Dr Angela Wood, as well as other colleagues who have been contributing to BigData@Heart projects and from whom I have been learning a lot, such as Dr Stephen Kaptoge, Dr Stephen Burgess, Dr Steven Bell, Dr Adam Butterworth, Professor Emanuele Di Angelantonio, and Professor John Danesh.


Q : Can you describe your work in BigData@Heart? 

A: I have been leading a Mendelian randomisation study in BigData@Heart Case Study 5 that aims to understand the role of iron in a range of cardiometabolic diseases, such as coronary heart disease and heart failure. In a nutshell, we use genetic polymorphisms associated with iron traits (for example, ferritin or transferrin) and assess if these genetic variants are also associated with cardiometabolic outcomes.


Q : Why is this BigData@Heart study important?

A: It is still unclear whether or not iron plays a significant role in cardiometabolic diseases. In our study, we investigate this relationship in detail using novel genetic variants that have been recently discovered and are associated with common iron traits. Our analysis also aims to cast light on the biological role of specific genetic variants on cardiometabolic outcomes, using a range of approaches. Unfortunately, the progress has been slower than expected due to the current pandemic. Because of my training in public health and previous experience with large-scale studies, I have been redeployed to work on COVID-19-related projects.


Q: What are these COVID-related projects about?

A: I am involved in a consortium called COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK), which aims to perform sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 samples across the United Kingdom and link them with electronic health data. COG-UK is currently the largest global effort to map the genome of SARS-CoV-2. My role consists of generating internal audit reports on geographic sequence coverage and presenting them weekly to the consortium’s directorate, UK public health agencies, and sequencing site leads. The purpose is to give senior consortium members a regular update on sequencing progress and enable appropriate operational actions.

I also have a minor role in a project that investigates drug repurposing opportunities to tackle COVID-19. This study uses Mendelian randomisation - the same approach described above for the iron project - to understand if existing medicines can be used against COVID-19.


Q: What are your future plans?

A: We are living in quite challenging times, so I am a bit nervous about making plans at the moment. However, I know that I really enjoy research, as it involves studying a problem under different angles in incredibly stimulating interdisciplinary and multicultural environments. I would like to keep working on ways to prevent and treat cardiometabolic diseases, which unfortunately are the number one killer diseases in the world. Finally, I also know that I would like to make my research open and accessible, so that it can hopefully benefit as many people as possible.

Published on: 02/10/2021