Research News: Studying the body’s immune response to COVID-19, researchers discover potential therapeutic targets

Bloodsamples covered in frost in a freezer

Research is showing that part of what makes the virus that causes COVID-19 so deadly is that the body mounts an overreactive immune response as the virus grows and replicates. This response releases inflammatory molecules in order to fight the virus, but also destroys healthy cells and organs in the process.

In an effort to target these harmful processes and protect the body while still allowing the virus to be eradicated, a team from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Lawson Health Research Institute are the first in the world to profile the body’s immune response to COVID-19. By studying blood samples from critically ill patients the research team identified a unique pattern of six molecules that could be used as therapeutic targets to treat the virus. The study was published in  Critical Care Explorations.

Dr. Douglas Fraser in the lab pipetting with a mask on“Clinicians have been trying to address this hyperinflammation but without evidence of what to target,” explained Dr. Douglas Fraser, Professor, Paediatrics. “Our study takes away the guessing by identifying potential therapeutic targets for the first time.”

The study included 30 participants: 10 COVID-19 patients and 10 patients with other infections admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU), as well as 10 healthy control participants. Blood was drawn daily for the first seven days of ICU admission, processed in a lab and then analyzed using statistical methods and artificial intelligence (AI).

The research team studied 57 inflammatory molecules. They found that six molecules were uniquely elevated in COVID-19 ICU patients (tumour necrosis factor, granzyme B, heat shock protein 70 and interleukin-18, interferon-gamma-inducible protein 10 and elastase 2.)

The team also used artificial intelligence to validate their results. They found that inflammation profiling was able to predict the presence of COVID-19 in critically ill patients with 98 per cent accuracy. They also found that one of the molecules (heat shock protein 70) measured in blood early during the illness was strongly associated with an increased risk of death.

“Understanding the immune response is paramount to finding the best treatments. Our next step is to test drugs that block the harmful effects of several of these molecules while still allowing the immune system to fight the virus,” said Dr. Fraser who is also a  Scientist at Lawson and Critical Care Physician at London Health Sciences Centre.

Patient samples and data generated from this study are also being used to inform other COVID-19 research studies at Lawson and Western. This includes studies looking at new treatments.

“I’m honoured to be part of this global research response,” adds Dr. Fraser.