Scientists identify genes associated with COVID-19 risk

TORONTO — Scientists say they have identified a group of genes that may “significantly increase” the risk of developing COVID-19.

New research, presented at the ATS 2021 International Conference on Friday, suggests that having genetic risk variants in the ABO gene, among others, might increase one’s chances of contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

According to a press release, Ana Hernandez Cordero, a postdoctoral fellow with the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues used “integrative genomics combined with proteomics to identify” these genes.

Hernandez Cordero explained in the release that genomic research identifies those genes that play a role in the development of a disease, while proteomics does the same for proteins. She says analyzing both gave researchers a more broad picture of disease processes in relation to COVID-19.

“DNA is a big, complex molecule and so, genetic associations alone cannot pinpoint the exact gene responsible for COVID-19,” Hernandez Cordero said. “However, by combining COVID-19 genetic information with gene expression and proteomic datasets, we can figure out which genes are driving the relationship with COVID-19.”

According to the release, researchers used genetic information combined with an examination of lung gene expression to identify genetic variants responsible for COVID-19 infection.

Researchers say they found specific genes that share their effects on gene expression and protein levels with COVID-19 susceptibility.

Researchers then analyzed this further using bioinformatics to integrate the genomic dataset of COVID-19 patients and non-infected individuals, blood tissue gene expression datasets from clinical populations, and a proteome dataset obtained from blood donors not infected with COVID-19.

In doing this, the researchers reported “several genes” responsible for the immune system’s response to COVID-19 are also involved in COVID-19 susceptibility. The study noted that this has been supported by previous research.

However, looking for these genes in blood proteins took the findings a step further than previous studies in connecting the effects of genes to susceptibility to COVID-19.

“By harnessing the power of genomic information, we identified genes that are related to COVID-19,” Hernandez Cordero said in the release.

“In particular, we found that the ABO gene is a significant risk factor for COVID-19. Of particular note was the relationship between the blood group ABO and COVID-19 risk. We showed that the relationship is not just an association but causal,” she explained.

In addition to the ABO gene, the researchers found that those with certain genetic variants for SLC6A20, ERMP1, FCER1G and CA11 have a “significantly higher risk” of contracting COVID-19.

Hernandez Cordero said their research has progressed from first conducting the analysis and they’ve since identified genetic variants for IL10RB, IFNAR2 and OAS1 also linked to severe COVID-19.

According to the release, many of these genes have already been linked with respiratory diseases including the gene ERMP1 and asthma.

Researchers cautioned that individuals with these genes should use “extreme caution during the pandemic.” Finding out if one has these genes can be done through genetic testing at the recommendation of a physician.

Hernandez Cordero said pinpointing these genes can help in providing potential drug targets for COVID-19 treatment.

“These genes have been linked to severe COVID-19. Their role in the immune response to viral infections and mounting evidence suggest that these candidates and their role in COVID-19 should be further investigated,” Hernandez Cordero said.

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