U of T research team developing new treatment for COVID-19 complication

As ICU cases remain above the 200 mark in Ontario, University of Toronto researchers have identified a molecule with the potential to combat one of the most severe complications of COVID-19 infections. Maleeha Sheikh reports.

By Maleeha Sheikh

A University of Toronto research team says they have identified a treatment that could help combat one of the most serious COVID-19 complications.

The treatment is a molecule called QHREDGS, which works to prevent a “cytokine storm” — a potentially life-threatening immune reaction to the virus.

During a cytokine storm, it causes a dysfunction in blood vessels that can migrate to the heart and liver and cause widespread damage, including heart failure.

“A cytokine storm is when a person’s immune system is shooting from all places to get rid of the virus and while it’s doing that, it could damage the tissue and the organs of the person,” says professor Milica Radisic, one of the researchers at the Centre for Research and Applications in Fluidic Technologies (CRAFT).

The researchers say cytokine storms are known to happen in some COVID-19 patients as well as with other illnesses.

A big challenge during the pandemic has been trying to understand why some people who get COVID experience cytokine storms, while others do not.

Radisic and co-researcher Rick Lu have been using “organ-on-a-chip” technology to study the problem. It allows them to figure out how the virus affects different human tissues without having to work with human patients.

“We make miniature tissues in this lab and then we take them to a facility where we can infect these tissues,” says Radisic. “[Then] we can figure out which tissues get infected, which tissues can affect other cells, and which are prone to damage from inflammation.”

“[For] the COVID patient who suffers from inflammatory responses, we can actually reduce that inflammation in their body and thereby improve the patient outcome.”

Lu says this technology can also be used in other studies.

“We could repurpose our “organ on a chip” system to not only study the disease progression but also study the drug efficacies in a rapid fashion.”

In the study so far, the researchers found the molecule enhanced vascular functions and repaired some of the harmful effects of COVID-19 and there’s optimism that this could be a step in keeping future COVID patients out of the ICU.

“[These] molecules that we discovered once they pass appropriate regulatory approvals they could be used in patients,” says Radisic.

The treatment is still two to three years away from being able to be used in patients, but the researchers are hopeful it would allow them to be more prepared if there is another pandemic.

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