Researchers from the Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University are the first in the world to analyze the body’s immune response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), according to a press release.

Studying blood samples from critically ill patients at the London Health Sciences Center (LHSC), the researchers identified a unique pattern of 6 molecules that could be used as therapeutic targets to treat the virus, as reported in the Critical Care Explorations journal.

Research has shown that the immune system can overreact to the virus and cause a cytokine storm, or elevated levels of inflammatory molecules that damage healthy cells, according to the press release.

“Clinicians have been trying to address this hyperinflammation but without evidence of what to target,” said lead researcher Douglas Fraser, MD, in the press release. “Our study takes away the guessing by identifying potential therapeutic targets for the first time.”

The participants included 10 patients with COVID-19, 10 patients with other infections admitted to LHSC’s intensive care unit (ICU), and 10 healthy control participants. Blood was drawn for the first 7 days of ICU admission, processed in a lab, and then analyzed using statistical methods and artificial intelligence (AI).

Further, 57 inflammatory molecules were studied by the researchers, who found that 6 molecules were elevated in COVID-19 ICU patients: tumor necrosis factor, granzyme B, heat shock protein 70, interleukin-18, interferon-gamma-inducible protein 10, and elastase 2.

According to the press release, the researchers used AI to validate their results, finding that inflammation profiling was able to predict the presence of COVID-19 in critically ill patients with 98% accuracy. One of the molecules, heat shock protein 70, was strongly associated with an increased risk of death when measured in the blood early during the illness.

“Understanding the immune response is paramount to finding the best treatments,” Fraser said in the press release. “Our next step is to test drugs that block the harmful effects of several of these molecules while still allowing the immune system to fight the virus.”

Study is first to identify potential therapeutic targets for COVID-19. Lawson Health Research Institute. Published June 25, 2020. Accessed June 25, 2020.