Like Venom Coursing Through the Body: Researchers Identify Mechanism Driving COVID-19 Mortality

Tuesday, August 24, 2021
In a photo taken prior to the pandemic, Dr. Chilton (second from left) and his lab team examine how genetic and epigenetic variations interact with human diets to drive inflammation and inflammatory disorders, as well as psychiatric and developmental disorders. Chris Richards/University of Arizona

An enzyme with an elusive role in severe inflammation may be a key mechanism driving COVID-19 severity and could provide a new therapeutic target to reduce COVID-19 mortality, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Researchers from the University of Arizona, in collaboration with Stony Brook University and Wake Forest School of Medicine, analyzed blood samples from two COVID-19 patient cohorts and found that circulation of the enzyme – secreted phospholipase A2 group IIA, or sPLA2-IIA, – may be the most important factor in predicting which patients with severe COVID-19 eventually succumb to the virus.

The sPLA2-IIA enzyme, which has similarities to an active enzyme in rattlesnake venom, is found in low concentrations in healthy individuals and has long been known to play a critical role in defense against bacterial infections, destroying microbial cell membranes.

When the activated enzyme circulates at high levels, it has the capacity to "shred" the membranes of vital organs, said Floyd (Ski) Chilton, senior author on the paper and director of the UArizona Precision Nutrition and Wellness Initiative in the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.   

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