Did you know certain genes can increase risk of getting coronavirus? Yes you read that correctly. With the coronavirus on everybody’s mind we set out to explore the important question:
Is its true that certain gene(s) can increase risk of coronavirus? Or make us prone to severely ill from a virus such as COVID19?
Well the answer is a bit complicated.
So first, it is important to understand our body. Let’s look at the genetic mutation that makes people prone to cold.
There was a 5 year old girl who kept getting numerous life-threatening infections from human rhinoviruses which causes the common cold. As a 10 month old baby she was put under the ventilator because of rhinovirus and a flu virus. This became a big factor in her care and doctors decided to decode her entire genome. Whole genome sequencing explores every single gene in the body and other genetic information which is not located inside genes. There are ~22000 known genes. They found she had a mutation in a gene called IFIH1, which is involved in the production of immune- system proteins called MDA5. MDA5 proteins acts like a detector for virus inside cells and would signal the activation of other immune-system proteins to fight the infection. We can conclude that MDA5 is required for immunity against several classes of viruses. However this MDA5 does not recognise all viruses such as rhinoviruses. This is when a virus can be fatal as your body is not fighting it.
Similarly, there is another gene called the IRF7 gene. This gene encodes a protein that amplifies the production of interferon, a critical part of the body’s response to viral infections. This gene was defective in a patient with severe susceptibility to H1N1 influenza (type of virus). All of this means is a defective IRF7 gene makes someone very likely to get some viruses such as H1N1.
Similar to MDA5, we have RIG-I and LGP2 which could get genetically compromised. If it is compromised then our immune system’s response to a virus is weakened. LGP2 is a positive regulator of RIG-I- and MDA5-mediated antiviral responses.
Is there a solution?
So what happens when a virus enters our body? What is the genetic solution? Lets study this picture on gene therapy. When a virus (which also has a genetic make up) enters our body it affects our genes. Using gene therapy, cells that have viruses in them can be modified either to be compensated or to beneficial protein. In simpler words, gene therapy may be able to introduce a normal copy of the gene to restore the function of the protein.
Getting back to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we do not have a full explanation yet as different genomes have not been decoded to a point where researchers have a large sample size to form scientific conclusions. But we can say these three things:
- Genetics can influence your risk to all sorts of things: cancer, diabetes, heart disease and even things like gambling and drug addiction. The evidence is immense. Consider the famous BRCA genes which if mutated can lead to an increased risk of breast cancer.
- The novel coronavirus (aka COVID-19) is.. a virus. A virus has its own genome. For practical purposes what it means is the virus is also made up of genes just like humans. Using some of the same techniques to understand which genes humans have scientists around the world are scrambling to understand the underlying genetics of the coronavirus. And how to best defeat it. Our curious readers can learn more here.
- Many studies have shown that different people (even different populations) have different susceptibility for getting certain infectious diseases (cold, H1N1 for example). Many scientists have studied the correlation between genes and the chances of getting infection or viruses. Certainly many experts believe genes can increase risk of coronavirus.
Bringing these facts together: it is plausible that certain gene (the coronavirus gene) or genes put you at greater risk to coronavirus just as certain genes increase your risk to cancer. If you have known genes that influence your body’s immune system you are very likely to be more prone. However we will certainly know more in the coming months once a large sample size has been decoded and scientific evidence is published.
Where do things stand today? Today we are in the learning phase about the genes of the coronavirus. In parallel, scientists are studying what may increase the risk. Currently, there is no test as the genes are work are unknown (or perhaps partially known).
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