Hope is to develop targeted treatments for affected patients
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and doctors alike have agreed that as a person’s age progresses, so does the danger of the virus to their recovery and ultimate survival.
But one question has been particularly perplexing — why do some young adults recover after mild symptoms, while others struggle greatly or succumb? New research indicates that it may be a case of immune systems attacking the individual, and they are hoping to develop new, targeted treatments for these patients.
Some people — men in particular — succumb because their immune systems are hit by friendly fire. In an international study in Science, 10% of nearly 1,000 COVID patients who developed life-threatening pneumonia had antibodies that disable key immune system proteins called interferons. These antibodies — known as autoantibodies because they attack the body itself — were not found at all in 663 people with mild or asymptomatic COVID infections.
Only four of 1,227 healthy individuals had the autoantibodies. The study, published on Oct. 23, was led by the COVID Human Genetic Effort, which includes 200 research centers in 40 countries.
“This is one of the most important things we’ve learned about the immune system since the start of the pandemic,” said Dr. Eric Topol, executive vice president for research at Scripps Research in San Diego, who was not involved in the new study. “This is a breakthrough finding.”
A second Science study found that an additional 3.5% of critically ill patients had mutations in genes that control the interferons involved in fighting viruses. Given that the body has 500-600 of these genes, it’s possible researchers will find more mutations, said Qian Zhang, lead author of the second study.
Lab studies also show that interferons, the body’s first line of defense against infection, can be suppressed in some people with COVID-19. What’s not known is whether the virus itself causes the suppression. Regardless, the interferons are critical in protecting the body against unfamiliar viruses.