Doctors can examine COVID-19 patients’ blood to identify those at greatest risk of severe illness and to pinpoint those most likely to need a ventilator, new research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine suggests.
The discovery could lead to new treatments to prevent deadly “cytokine storms” seen in severe cases of COVID-19. It also may help explain why diabetes contributes to worse outcomes in patients with the coronavirus.
The UVA scientists found that the levels of a particular cytokine in the blood upon diagnosis could be used to predict later outcomes. Cytokines – proteins produced by immune cells – are responsible for severe overreactions by the immune system, known as cytokine storms, associated with COVID-19 and other serious illnesses.
The researchers say the discovery could become part of a scoring system to let doctors flag at-risk COVID-19 patients for closer monitoring and personalized interventions. The finding also identifies cytokines doctors could target as a new treatment approach.
“The immune response that we discovered to predict severe shortness of breath in COVID-19 is known in other pulmonary diseases to cause damage. So this could lead to a novel way to prevent respiratory failure in individuals infected with the new coronavirus, by inhibiting this immune cytokine,” said Dr. Bill Petri of UVA’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health. “We plan to test this in a model of COVID-19 prior to considering a clinical trial.”