The COVID-19 pandemic is a global, public health crisis with far-reaching and long-term repercussions on the financial, physical, and psychological well-being of the population. As a consequence of the highly contagious nature of the disease, the virus has spread rapidly across the world. The disease is associated with severe pneumonia that often leads to acute respiratory distress syndrome and other complications including multi-organ failure, septic shock, venous thromboembolism, ultimately culminating in a relatively high mortality rate.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global challenge, and point-of-care diagnostic classifiers are urgently required.” (Messner et al., 2020)
The emergence of this disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has led to an urgent search for new diagnostic and therapeutic strategies. In parallel, a deeper and more sophisticated definition of patient status and their response to therapy are now required. There is evidence from several related studies that protein biomarkers could provide this data. Proteins associated with cell damage, blood clotting, and inflammation are thought to predict both the symptoms, severity and mortality of COVID-19 patients.
“Establishing the underlying proteins involved in the various stages of this disease will pave the way to the discovery of new biomarkers in the diagnosis and prognosis of COVID-19 and its complications” (Whetton et al., 2020).
Research on COVID-19 is very much in its infancy; thus, researchers have had to turn to data from previous analyses of other coronavirus diseases. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is related to SARS-CoV, which caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2002. The SARS virus quickly spread from China to other Asian countries. During the period of infection, there were 8,098 cases reported and almost 800 deaths. During this outbreak, scientists found changes in the peripheral blood proteins of those infected. Further studies using the latest proteomic and mass spectrometry techniques applied to SARS-CoV-2 virus will provide a more detailed picture of the patient condition and responses to therapy.
“Omic-scale studies on this viral infection are emerging rapidly and offer a tremendous potential to unravel the puzzles of the SARS-CoV-2 pathobiology, and ways forward for diagnostic and therapeutic innovation.” (Ray and Srivastava, 2020)
So, what have we discovered about protein markers in COVID-19 patients?
A proteomic analysis performed by Shen et al. (2020) identified 105 proteins whose levels were altered in COVID-19 patients and 93 proteins, including several acute-phase proteins, which linked to disease severity. Forty-two proteins showed higher levels in severe cases as compared with non-severe cases. The authors have been able to use their findings to create a predictive model. It is hoped that this model will be used to identify patients at increased risk of severe symptoms.
Several other studies have reported associations between protein concentration and disease severity, and predictive algorithms have begun to be formulated on this basis.
Proteomics is developing quickly and adapting to find ways for researchers to solve the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented. Proteomics will be instrumental in early detection, therapy, and immunisation of this disruptive and deadly disease.
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Whetton et al. Proteomics and Informatics for Understanding Phases and Identifying Biomarkers in COVID-19 Disease. Journal of Proteomics research. 2020 July 12; https://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.jproteome.0c00326
Shen et al Proteomic and Metabolomic Characterization of COVID-19 Patient Sera. Cell. 2020 May 27; 182, 59 https://Doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.05.032