Researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), together with colleagues from the Weill Cornell Medicine campus in New York (WCM-NY), identified proteins that circulate at higher levels in the blood of COVID-19 patients.

Dr Frank Schmidt (left) and Dr Karsten Suhre
Dr Frank Schmidt (left) and Dr Karsten Suhre

The Doha-based researcher team, led by Dr Frank Schmidt and Dr Karsten Suhre, used the advanced biomedical research facilities at WCM-Q to identify protein markers in blood samples that were collected during the first COVID-19 wave by Dr Augustin Choi’s team at WCM-NY. The marker proteins are helping researchers to better understand the molecular processes that are involved in the progression of COVID-19 and in particular, the body’s inflammatory response, which sometimes triggers severe outcomes.

Better tools and treatments for COVID-19

Their study confirmed the findings of three studies conducted previously by other international research teams, and in combination with the new study data generated in Qatar, provides a stronger foundation for ongoing efforts to develop better diagnostic tools and treatments for COVID-19. The findings could also help researchers understand the wide variation in symptoms among COVID-19 patients, potentially explaining why some people have only mild disease while others have severe or fatal reactions.

Dr Schmidt said they have a very advanced platform for identifying protein markers and they were able to use this capability to verify and confirm the results of other studies on the proteins that circulate more strongly or weakly in the blood of COVID-19. Determining robust protein markers in this way gives them a much clearer picture of the processes underlying the inflammation in COVID-19 patients, including the so-called cytokine storm that can be so devastating.

Cytokines are proteins that play a role in the regulation of the body’s response to infection. We are very pleased that our team at WCM-Q in Doha was able to collaborate with our colleagues in the United States on such an important research project.

Olink: Proteomics Analysis Platform

The researchers used WCM-Q’s state-of-the-art proteomics analysis platform – known by the trade name Olink – to examine proteins in blood samples from COVID-19 patients from two new and three previously published COVID-19 studies.

They also compared protein measurements with that from control samples obtained from healthy patients and from patients with other, non-COVID-related diseases. The analysis revealed thirteen specific proteins, most of which were found at higher levels in blood from COVID-19 patients, and this coherently in all five studies.

Overall, COVID-19 patients in all five studies shared common trends in molecular processes that are associated with cytokine-cytokine interactions and the activity of a protein called IL18 (interleukin 18), which is known to play a key role in inflammation. These findings confirm findings from previous studies that identified a COVID-19 cytokine storm syndrome. The research was made possible by the decision to establish the powerful Olink platform at WCM-Q.

Cross-campus research

The work, titled Identification of Robust Protein Associations With COVID-19 Disease Based on Five Clinical Studies, was published in the leading journal, Frontiers in Immunology.

In addition to Bioinformatics Core and Proteomics Core at WCM-Q, the study also involved researchers from the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at WCM-NY, and the Department of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center, WCM-NY.

According to Dr Suhre, the study demonstrates the power of combining high-end proteomics with cutting-edge bioinformatics in the analysis of clinical samples collected at a time of crisis across WCM campuses in Qatar and the USA.

He said that the advanced proteomic analysis capabilities at WCM-Q mean that Qatar can lead important international research projects like this one, potentially pointing the way to new therapeutic targets and thus new treatments for diseases like COVID-19.

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