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Doctors discovered a terrifying new coronavirus symptom that’s killing patients

Updated Oct 8th, 2020 1:50PM EDT
Coronavirus Cure
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  • Researchers have discovered a terrifying new way that the novel coronavirus kills patients.
  • COVID-19 patients who died from severe complications developed a jelly-like substance in the lungs. The accumulation of this jelly can lead to respiratory failure and death.
  • Researchers identified a drug that can slow down the production of the jelly and possibly save lives. They also found that steroids like dexamethasone can block the production of the deadly hyaluronan-based jelly.

Most coronavirus patients will recover without ever experiencing any serious complications. Some of them will not even show any symptoms indicative of COVID-19. But there are many people at risk of developing life-threatening complications. Age, gender, and a slew of preexisting conditions make it a lot more difficult for the immune system to battle the virus without help from therapeutics. And not all the covid treatments available right now will be able to save everyone.

But COVID-19 research has advanced at tremendous speed. The doctors who have been treating and studying coronavirus patients have learned how to save more lives than they could during the early months of the pandemic. The most recent discovery concerns a severe complication that can lead to death and seems to confirm one of the scariest coronavirus complications. The lungs in some people infected with COVID-19 fill with liquid, which then becomes a jelly that makes it impossible to breathe. Affected patients will need ventilation therapy as the respiratory failure worsens, and many have died from the horrifying condition.

Some researchers hypothesized earlier this year that the virus levels of a substance called bradykinin, which has a direct effect on blood vessels and blood pressure. They said that the compound leads to water leaking from vessels and filling up the lungs. But that’s where things get more complicated — the paragraph below is from our coverage in early September:

Jacobson and his team think COVID-19 might have another effect that further complicates things. The virus increases the production of hyaluronic acid (HLA) that can absorb plenty of fluid. When HLA interacts with the fluid in the lungs, the end result is a hydrogel that makes it even more difficult to breathe. At that point, it’s likely that not even ventilators will be able to help. “It reaches a point where regardless of how much oxygen you pump in, it doesn’t matter because the alveoli in the lungs are filled with this hydrogel,” Jacobson says. “The lungs become like a water balloon.”

The following diagram from Jacobson’s paper further explains the process:

From the study: “Systemic-level effects of critically imbalanced RAS and bradykinin pathways.” Image source: Daniel Jacobson et al. via eLife Sciences

This brings us to a brand new study from Umeå University that describes the same phenomenon. Researchers discovered liquid gel inside the lungs of patients who died of COVID-19 complications. And this time around, the researchers proposed a treatment that could prevent the chemical process that leads to the formation of this deadly lung jelly.

“There are already therapies that either slow down the body’s production of this jelly or break down the jelly through an enzyme. Our findings can also explain why cortisone seems to have an effect on COVID-19,” Umeå University researchers Urban Hellman said in a statement.

The scientists discovered clear liquid jelly inside the lungs of deceased COVID-19 patients, which made them look like the lungs of drowning victims. They say the jelly consists “of the substance hyaluronan, which is a polysaccharide in the glycosaminoglycan group.” Hyaluronan is mentioned in the schematic above as well.

Hyaluronan is a common substance in the human body, where it’s involved in various functions like healing wounds. But when it forms inside the lungs of COVID-19 patients, it can be deadly. “It is this process that runs riot in the alveoli of COVID-19 patients’ lungs resulting in the patient needing ventilator care and, in [the] worst case, dies from respiratory failure,” the researchers said.

This team of scientists thinks that a drug called Hymecromone can be used to slow down the production of hyaluronan in diseases like gallbladder attacks. They also explain that cortisone reduces hyaluronan production, which is why dexamethasone and other steroids can ameliorate symptoms and save the lives of patients experiencing severe COVID-19 complications.

The study from Umeå University might be one of the biggest breakthroughs so far this year, as it could lead to new therapies that save even more lives. As with other studies though, more research will be needed to prove these findings. Clinical trials with Hymecromone and similar drugs would be needed before the drugs can be used to combat COVID-19. The full study is available in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.