Scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys have identified a set of human genes that fight SARS-CoV-2 infection, the virus that causes COVID-19. Knowing which genes help control viral infection can greatly assist researchers’ understanding of factors that affect disease severity and also suggest possible therapeutic options. The genes in question are related to interferons, the body’s frontline virus fighters.
The study was published in the journal Molecular Cell.
“We wanted to gain a better understanding of the cellular response to SARS-CoV-2, including what drives a strong or weak response to infection,” says Sumit K. Chanda, Ph.D., professor and director of the Immunity and Pathogenesis Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys and lead author of the study. “We’ve gained new insights into how the virus exploits the human cells it invades, but we are still searching for its Achille’s heel so that we can develop optimal antivirals.”
Soon after the start of the pandemic, clinicians found that a weak interferon response to SARS-CoV-2 infection resulted in some of the more severe cases of COVID-19. This knowledge led Chanda and his collaborators to search for the human genes that are triggered by interferons, known as interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs), which act to limit SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Based on knowledge gleaned from SARS-CoV-1, the virus that caused a deadly, but relatively brief, outbreak of disease from 2002 to 2004, and knowing that it was similar to SARS-CoV-2, the investigators were able to develop laboratory experiments to identify the ISGs that control viral replication in COVID-19.
As a next step, the researchers will look at the biology of SARS-CoV-2 variants that continue to evolve and threaten vaccine efficacy. Martin-Sancho notes that they have already started gathering variants for laboratory investigation.