Australian researchers have found out why chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients face a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19, which could be critical in developing new drugs.

Researchers from the Centenary Institute and the University of Technology Sydney published their findings in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

COPD is an inflammatory lung condition that causes airway blockage and makes it difficult to breathe. The condition affects around 400 million people in the world.

In the study, the researchers infected differentiated airway cells from COPD patients and healthy people with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They found that the COPD airway cells had a massive increase in the amount of SARS-CoV-2 when compared to the healthy cells.

“We examined the genetic information of infected cells through advanced single-cell RNA-sequencing analysis,” said Dr. Matt Johansen from the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation, who is the lead author of the study. “Seven days after SARS-CoV-2 infection, there was a 24-fold increase of viral load in the COPD patient airway cells compared to the cells taken from healthy individuals.”

Additionally, infected COPD patient airway cells also have higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are linked to more severe COVID-19 and COPD outcomes, according to Dr Johansen.

“COPD is an inflammatory disease with patients having increased inflammation at baseline compared to healthy people. It’s highly likely that SARS-CoV-2 exacerbates this existing high inflammation level which leads to even poorer outcomes,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Professor Phil Hansbro, Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation (supplied).

The researchers’ initial laboratory drug testing has successfully and substantially reduced SARS-CoV-2 viral levels in COPD patient cells, according to a media release of the institute on May 17.

“Collectively, these findings have allowed us to understand the mechanisms of increased COVID-19 susceptibility in COPD patients,” said Prof. Phil Hansbro, Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation and the study’s senior author.

“We believe that new drug treatments targeting relevant enzymes and pro-inflammatory responses in SARS-CoV-2 infection could have excellent therapeutic potential in reducing the severity of COVID-19 in patients with COPD.”

The research was critical with hundreds of millions of people affected by COPD globally and with COVID-19 likely to be around for many years to come, Prof. Hansbro said.

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