• Researchers have engineered proteins that could travel the bloodstream and bind to excess cytokines in the so-called “cytokine storm” immune response that can take place with a variety of diseases.
  • The discoveries were made well before the novel coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan, China.
  • The researchers believe their proteins could help in severe COVID-19 cases where cytokine storms can lead to death.
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Doctors treating severe COVID-19 cases observed a condition called “cytokine storm” that can occur in some patients and lead to death. These so-called storms aren’t a new phenomenon, as they appear with other medical conditions as well. In simpler terms, the immune system that’s supposed to fight the novel coronavirus goes haywire and ends up attacking the whole body instead of just the virus. Doctors are using some drugs to lower the immune response in these severe cases, in an attempt to save the lives of these patients. Scientists explained that balancing the immune response is a tricky thing to do. On the one hand, the immune system creates antibodies that can kill the virus and help the patient recover. On the other hand, the cytokine storm that can follow might end up killing the patient.

Rather than use existing immuno-suppressing drugs to reduce the storms, doctors may be able to use a new therapy. Scientists have developed proteins that would bind to cytokines to help avoid complications that could lead to death.

MIT researchers have been studying cytokine storms for a decade, and the proteins they’ve created were finalized last year, well before the first novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. “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,” senior MIT researcher Rui Qing told Medical Express.

The researchers started work on blocking cytokine storms 10 years ago. They looked to develop modified versions of membrane-embedded proteins, which are challenging to study in labs. They maintain their structure only if suspended in particular types of detergents.

The researchers developed a method to replace the hydrophobic regions of these proteins with hydrophilic amino acids that have similar structures. Then they designed water-soluble versions of proteins known as cytokine receptors, which are found on the surface of immune cells where they bind to cytokine-signaling proteins. Water-soluble proteins can travel through the bloodstream of patients, while hydrophobic versions would just attach to the cells they encounter.

Proteins with cytokine receptors would be able to fight cytokine storms that can appear with HIV, hepatitis, cancer, and viral and bacterial infections, the researchers said at the time.

Last April, the team created proteins that would act like a sponge and collect excess cytokines. The researchers also attached an antibody segment to the water-soluble receptor proteins so that the immune system would not attack the proteins as well. The immune system reacts to everything that enters the body without such signals, in an attempt to dispose of a potential pathogen.

The researchers created proteins that can mimic six different cytokine receptors, and they can bind to interferon, interleukin, and chemokines. “The cytokine receptors that we designed will soak up the majority of the excessive cytokines that are released during the cytokine storm,” David Jin, author and CEO and president of Avalon GloboCare, said.

Once it became clear that cytokine storms are responsible for severe COVID-19 prognostics, the researchers realized their product might be used to pause the “storm.” They’ve published their results and patented the techniques, but the process still needs testing on human cells and in animal models.

As with other experimental treatments devised for COVID-19, it may be a while before these proteins can be used in hospitals. But if these proteins work, they may be used in a variety of medical conditions that can trigger cytokine storms in patients, not just the novel coronavirus.

The full study describing these proteins that can bind to cytokines is available on Quarterly Review of Biophysics Discovery.

Chris Smith started writing about gadgets as a hobby, and before he knew it he was sharing his views on tech stuff with readers around the world. Whenever he's not writing about gadgets he miserably fails to stay away from them, although he desperately tries. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.