Researchers at the University of Alberta may have found a new piece of the puzzle to fully understand COVID-19 — how a protein may be deregulating the immune system and leading to serious long-term conditions or death.
The new study shows COVID-19 patients have high levels of a protein called galectin-9 in their blood plasma. Researchers have also found a link between those elevated levels of galectin-9 and the occurrence of “cytokine storms” within the patient’s body.
A cytokine storm is when cytokine is produced very quickly and released in large quantity, which causes severe inflammation, damages organs and tissue and can lead to death.
When produced at normal levels, the cytokine is a protein released by cells that can fight certain infections. The cytokine storm is like an overactive immune system.
If patients survive the storm, the deregulated immune system can lead to what is commonly known as long COVID or post-COVID syndrome.
Led by Dr. Shokrollah Elahi at the U of A — who previously worked with HIV, AIDS and cancer patients — the research team analyzed the blood plasma of 120 patients who had COVID-19. They found the levels of galectin-9 were much higher than patients with HIV or cancer.
If the team’s suppositions are correct — that COVID-19 patients can be identified by analyzing a sample of their blood — it would introduce a new form of COVID testing. It could also allow healthcare professionals to identify the extent of a COVID-19 infection based on the level of galectin-9 in a patient’s blood plasma.
Dr. Elahi says the next step in the research would be to develop treatments to block the protein.
“We are now looking at expanding our study to a larger cohort of patients, and then working on a proof of concept in animal models,” Dr. Elahi said in a release. “What is killing COVID patients is not the virus; it’s the cytokine storm. Therefore, if we can reduce the cytokine storm damage by inhibiting galectin-9, then we can reduce complications, reduce hospitalizations and prevent mortality.”
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