Wednesday, May 29, 2024

U of A researchers identify elevated levels of protein linked to cytokine storm in COVID-19 patients

As clinical evidence mounts that the leading cause of death in COVID-19 patients is the dangerous condition known as a cytokine storm, University of Alberta researchers have identified a protein in the blood that could be responsible, Medical Xpress reports. The team found that COVID-19 patients have significantly elevated levels of a protein called galectin-9 in their blood plasma. Perhaps more importantly, they also found a positive correlation between the levels of galectin-9 and pro-inflammatory cytokines released in the blood, which can lead to a cytokine storm. Expanding on his work with HIV, AIDS, and cancer patients, Shokrollah Elahi, associate professor in the School of Dentistry’s Division of Foundational Sciences, and his team analyzed the blood plasma of 120 patients with COVID-19. They found that levels of galectin-9 were substantially higher in those patients than in individuals with HIV and cancer. “We have reported in the past that galectin-9 levels go up in HIV infection and with some cancers,” said Elahi. “However, when we compared the levels of galectin-9 in the COVID-19 patients to HIV and cancer patients, we could easily distinguish the COVID patients based on the galectin-9 levels.” The findings suggest that galectin-9 levels in the body could be used as a biomarker to diagnose COVID-19 using a patient’s blood, potentially providing another non-invasive tool for COVID-19 testing. The levels could also be used to indicate the severity of the disease, though further study on that aspect is required. “Cytokines as small cell-signaling proteins are involved in checks and balances in the immune system,” said Elahi. “They can turn on or turn off some cells to regulate the immune system. In the context of COVID, the problem is that there is a dysregulation of cytokine production – they are released very quickly in elevated levels. That’s what we call a ‘cytokine storm.” Elahi found that galectin-9 is responsible for instructing immune cells to release the pro-inflammatory cytokines quickly in response to COVID-19 infection by binding to immune cells and forcing them to produce the cytokines. Further, as tissues are damaged as a result of inflammation, more galectin-9 is released from the cells—which activates more immune cells and releases more cytokines in a vicious cycle. The resulting cytokine storm damages tissue and organs, causes severe inflammation and can lead to death, Elahi said. Even if patients survive the storm, the dysregulation of the immune system can have ongoing consequences and could be associated with the condition known as post-COVID-19 syndrome or long COVID. The next step is to develop treatments that block or inhibit the protein, Elahi said. While there are compounds available that could potentially be used, such as lactose or anti-galectin-9 antibodies, there are no treatments on the market specifically for blocking galectin-9 in humans. Said Elahi: “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.”

 

https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-08-inflammation-death-covid-patients.html

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