Recent research suggests that scientists have found a way to limit the devastating immune overreaction in COVID-19 that can result in death.
Known as the ‘cytokine storm’ or Cytokine Release Syndrome, it is caused by the body generating excess amounts of cytokines. These are proteins that regulate immune reactions to infections, trauma and diseases. Cytokines can trigger inflammation, which is supposed to contribute to healing. But in extreme cases of COVID-19, the body releases too many cytokines and they put inflammation into overdrive. Excess inflammation, in the case of 15-20% of patients, can result in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), destroy tissues, damage organs and even cause death. But according to Japanese researchers blocking the signals of one such cytokine, the cytokine storm can be tempered and patients have a better chance of recovery.
Why the need to block signals and how does that help patients? The team has found higher levels of several cytokines (IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, MCP-10) in patient samples. One of them, IL-6 is responsible for the release of another protein, PAI-1, which in high levels was associated with severe pneumonia that can be life-threatening to COVID-19 patients. The researchers decided to block IL-6 signals that can ramp up PAI-1 levels by using a monoclonal antibody drug (find out more about them in our earlier FAQ). According to the results, levels of PAI-1 quickly dropped and critical illness symptoms were reduced in severe COVID-19 patients. The results were confirmed in a small second study that found a significant improvement in 77% treated patients within 3-4 days. Researchers suggest that blocking IL-6 signalling and potentially combining inhibitor drugs with other antiviral drugs offers new ways to treat and save the lives of COVID-19 patients who develop severe respiratory complications.
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