Scientists have been working to uncover the genetic mechanisms guiding responses to COVID-19 almost as early as the pandemic began. Why do some people not display symptoms while others are impacted far more severely?
Brad Schaeffer of Medcomp Sciences says now, we’re starting to get answers.
The largest study in the world of its kind has identified about 16 genetic variants that influence the severe form of COVID-19, including inflammation intensity, immune response, and blood clotting.
The study looked at DNA from over 57,000 people, including nearly 7,500 hospitalized in United Kingdom intensive care units, compared to 1,630 people with a mild form of COVID and 48,000 who had not contracted COVID-19. Notable differences were detected in 16 genes from those in ICU compared to the other groups.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh led the study in partnership with GenOMICC, a worldwide research collaborative studying critical illness genetics, and Genomics England.
The study, published in Nature, also suggests that interferon-based treatment shows promise in treating the disease in early stages. Interferon are proteins sent by immune cells to fight viruses.
Critical COVID-19 illness is also associated with gene variations that guide the levels of blood clotting’s central component, according to the study, which may explain abnormalities in clotting observed in severe COVID-19.
The research not only sheds light on the complex mechanisms of the COVID-19 but may lead to more targeted, life-saving treatments.
More Genetic Signatures Uncovered
Numerous projects around the globe have investigated genetic links to COVID-19 severity. Stanford Medicine recently released an international analysis of research from more than 20 countries, identified 13 genetic indicators that may increase the risk for severe COVID-19.
The study, a research partnership with the University of Helsinki, mined COVID-19 data dating back to spring 2020 when the disease emerged. Illness severity variation was observed early, and researchers have been looking for anything resembling a pattern of DNA mutations or genetic variants in those hospitalized.
Among the 13 genes that stood out: one in the ACE2 protein, the central protein that the virus that causes COVID-19 targets to infect cells. Another genetic variant is known to play a large role in susceptibility to lung disease or immunity.
Each of the 13 variants identified in the study increased one’s risk of contracting the severe form of COVID-19, but some of the genes put certain people at risk more than others. One gene increased the risk by 50% while others increased risk by just 10%.
Another Variant that Protects Against COVID-19 Identified
Meanwhile, another international study has pinpointed a unique protective genetic variant that blocks the severe form of COVID-19.
The variant, rs10774671-G, plays a big role in the length of the protein unleashed by the OAS1 gene. The longer the protein variant, the more effective it is at dismantling the virus that causes COVID-19.
The study, led by researchers from the VA Boston Healthcare System, looked at people carrying parts of a DNA segment that has been linked to a 20% reduction in the risk of developing the life-threatening form of COVID-19 infection. The variant may be targeted in the future to fight severe infection.