As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives around the world, much research has focused on the immune system’s role in patients who become seriously ill. A popular theory has it that the immune system gets so revved up fighting the virus that, after several days, it produces a so-called cytokine storm that results in potentially fatal organ damage, particularly to the lungs.
But new findings from a team of researchers led by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis point to another theory and suggest that patients become ill because their immune systems can’t do enough to protect them from the virus, landing them in intensive care units. They suggest that boosting immunity could be a potential treatment strategy for COVID-19.
Such a strategy has been proposed in two recently published papers, one published online in JAMA Network Open and the other published online in the journal JCI Insight.
“People around the world have been treating patients seriously ill with COVID-19 using drugs that do very different things,” said senior investigator Richard S. Hotchkiss, MD, a professor of anesthesiology, of medicine and of surgery. “Some drugs tamp down the immune response, while others enhance it. Everybody seems to be throwing the kitchen sink at the illness. It may be true that some people die from a hyperinflammatory response, but it appears more likely to us that if you block the immune system too much, you’re not going to be able to control the virus.”
The Washington University researchers have been investigating a similar approach in treating sepsis, a potentially fatal condition that also involves patients who simultaneously seem to have overactive and weakened immune systems.