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Scientists Identify Potential Therapeutic Targets for COVID-19

Researchers profile the body's immune response in critically ill patients

by Lawson Health Research Institute
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Dr. Douglas Fraser led a research team that identified a unique pattern of six molecules that could be used as therapeutic targets to treat the COVID-19 virus.
Lawson Health Research Institute

LONDON, ONTARIO, CANADA — A team from Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University are the first in the world to profile the body's immune response to COVID-19. By studying blood samples from critically ill patients at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), the research team identified a unique pattern of six molecules that could be used as therapeutic targets to treat the virus. The study is published this week in Critical Care Explorations.

Blood samples from critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Lawson Health Research Institute

Since the pandemic's start there have been reports that the immune system can overreact to the virus and cause a cytokine storm - elevated levels of inflammatory molecules that damage healthy cells.

"Clinicians have been trying to address this hyperinflammation but without evidence of what to target," explains Dr. Douglas Fraser, lead researcher from Lawson and Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Critical Care Physician at LHSC. "Our study takes away the guessing by identifying potential therapeutic targets for the first time."

Related Article: How Blood is Providing Insights into COVID-19 Mysteries

A blood sample from a critically ill COVID-19 patient is collected at London Health Sciences Centre.
Lawson Health Research Institute

The study included 30 participants: 10 COVID-19 patients and 10 patients with other infections admitted to LHSC's 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 (tumor necrosis factor, granzyme B, heat shock protein 70, interleukin-18, interferon-gamma-inducible protein 10, and elastase 2).

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

"Understanding the immune response is paramount to finding the best treatments," says Fraser. "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."

- This press release was originally published on the Lawson Health Research Institute website