While it has been worrying for most immunocompromised people to get infected with COVID-19 disease, so are those who suffer from chronic lung conditions such as asthma.

Known to be a very complex illness with mild to life threatening symptoms, studies show that lungs are the organs most affected by the coronavirus.

Surprisingly, this is not the case for some types of asthma, a condition in which your airways narrow and makes breathing difficult. In fact, it is quite the opposite since it was found that lung disease can actually help protect against severe COVID-19 infection, according to ScienceAlert, unlike other lung conditions like emphysema, which may trigger severe symptoms more likely.

So, what distinguishes these lung problems and how is one better than the other in terms of protection against COVID-19? University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers say we may finally know how.

Defense Against Invading Coronavirus

Researchers had mimic the airways of asthmatic people and treated some of them with a small protein known to be more prevalent in asthma, called interleukin-13 (IL-13).

Interleukin-13 is a pleiotropic TH2 cytokine that has been shown to be central to the pathogenesis of asthma, the National Library of Medicine defines. This protein causes ramping up of mucus production in asthmatics "beyond healthy levels".

In the IL-13-treated cell cultures, coronavirus seems to have a trouble replicating and spreading. Meanwhile, in untreated cells, many more infections have been seen.

"We knew there had to be a bio-mechanistic reason why people with allergic asthma seemed more protected from severe disease," says biochemist Camille Ehre from UNC.

The research team concluded that IL-13 "plays a unique role in defense against SARS-CoV-2 infection in certain patient populations," she added. Findings of the study was published in PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Can This Be Used as COVID-19 Treatment?

While the IL-13 reduces intense viral and cell shedding caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection, it unfortunately can't be used as a treatment by itself, the authors say. As part of the patient's immune response, it can trigger inflammation in the lung's airways.

However, it can provide understanding of the crucial processes of the lungs, and by comparing cells that mimic asthmatic airways to healthy airway cells, scientists can uncover some of the underlying mechanisms behind severe COVID-19 cases.

This could also help develop therapeutic drugs in the future, targeting certain areas in the body which exhibited more severe symptoms and treating SARS-CoV-2 infection as early as possible, Ehre said in UNC Health.

"It shows just how important specific mechanisms involving ACE2 and IL-13 are, as we try our best to protect patients from developing severe infections," she added.

Nonetheless, COVID-19 is known to give broad spectrum of clinical symptoms, which is why it is important to elucidate intrinsic factors and replication and spreading mechanisms to modulate viral load or entry.

Finally, researchers conclude that IL-13 treatment provided additional protective effects and viral loads remain significantly lower in IL-13-treated cells.

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