While older patients and those with underlying conditions are typically more susceptible to the most severe forms of COVID-19, the pandemic has shown that young, previously healthy people can also develop serious symptoms.
A joint German-British study has discovered 27 biomarkers in the blood of infected patients that could help us understand why symptoms vary so dramatically – and predict how ill a person might become.
The findings could help doctors decide what treatment to prescribe, and could provide scientists with new targets in their hunt for effective drugs.
"One of the difficulties with COVID-19 is that it's very hard to predict which of the individuals will develop a very severe form of the disease and which will stay with a more mild form of the disease,” Markus Ralser, the study’s author and group leader at the Crick and Charité, told Euronews in a live TV interview.
The hope, he explained, is that the research could pave the way to "analytical tests" that could be used at an early stage of the disease. These would both provide a snapshot of how severely affected patients are at the moment they’re admitted to hospital, as well as a prediction of what trajectory they’re likely to follow – whether they have a high chance of recovering quickly or will need to be watched more closely.
The researchers used a method called mass spectrometry to quickly test for the presence and quantity of various proteins in the blood plasma. They analysed the serum of 31 COVID-19 patients at the Berlin University hospital Charité, and confirmed their results in 17 other infected patients at the same hospital, and in 15 healthy people.
Three of the key proteins that the team identified were associated with interleukin IL-6, a protein that causes inflammation. The biomarkers also included proteins not previously associated with COVID-19 infection.
The researchers now think it may be possible to alleviate symptoms by using drugs that target these proteins.
Ralser hopes the findings will ultimately help doctors "put the right treatment to the right patient, to tailor a perfect therapy for every individual that gets admitted to the hospital."
You can watch excerpts of the interview in the video player above.