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Infectious Diseases

Updated 23 April 2020

There may be a solution to the immune system 'storm' caused by Covid-19 in some patients

The so-called cytokine storm, where the immune system works in overdrive to fight the coronavirus, was a factor in some of the Covid-19-related deaths. But experts may have a solution.

Earlier in April, Health24 reported on the immune system phenomenon, known as a cytokine storm, that Covid-19 seems to trigger in some people.

This overreactive response by the immune system damages the lungs and can cause death.

Even though cytokine storms have been investigated, many clinicians worldwide were not exactly sure how to treat it, especially because it was unknown earlier in the coronavirus outbreak.

But now, a team of researchers at MIT has developed specialised proteins, similar in structure to antibodies, that could potentially “soak up” excess cytokines, according to a news release.

"The idea is that they can be injected into the body and bind to the excessive cytokines as generated by the cytokine storm, removing the excessive cytokines and alleviating the symptoms from the infection," says Rui Qing, an MIT research scientist and one of the study authors.

The study findings have been published in the journal Quarterly Review of Biophysics (QRB) Discovery.

Antibodies function like a sponge

According to the news release, this new research was built on a previous project to develop modified versions of membrane-embedded proteins.

These proteins are usually difficult to study as they don’t maintain their structure if they are not suspended in special types of detergents.

Now, the researchers developed a method to make the proteins soluble in water, and thus easier to study. In April 2019, the team set out to design proteins that could essentially soak up excess cytokines like a sponge.

"The cytokine receptors that we designed will soak up the majority of the excessive cytokines that are released during the cytokine storm," said David Jin, CEO and president of Avalon GloboCare and one of the authors.

Pandemic ramped up their research

As soon as evidence started to indicate that the new coronavirus triggered a cytokine storm in some patients, the research team realised that their receptor proteins might be able to help. They are now planning additional tests in human and animal cells infected with Covid-19.

According to the news release, the researchers filed for patents on the proteins they have designed, as well as the approach to create water soluble cytokine receptors.

Jin stated that the approach will require further studies on animals, and eventually potential human clinical trials before it can be successfully applied as a medical treatment, but he feels confident that this study will address viral diseases that involve cytokine storms.

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