One of the greatest challenges in the coronavirus pandemic has been the race for scientists and healthcare providers to understand how this virus moves through human bodies (diverse and complicated as we are), to ensure we find the most effective ways to reduce harm and treat it and the long- and short-term effects patients recovering from COVID-19 might experience. In one of the latest developments in that mission, researchers out of Emory University found that some survivors of COVID-19 have immune system complications reminiscent of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Looking at 52 patients in Atlanta who were sick with severe or critical cases of COVID-19 and no history of autoimmune disorders, researchers found the presence of autoantibodies — molecules that target genetic material from the body’s own cells instead of the virus — in more than half the participants. In patients who had high inflammation, researchers note that more than two-thirds of the participants had antibodies “attacking their own tissue.”
“As an immunologist within the Lowance Center for Human Immunology at Emory University, I have been investigating the immune response responsible for producing antibodies in COVID-19. Under the direction of Dr. Ignacio Sanz, our group has previously investigated immune responses contributing to autoantibody production in autoimmune disorders like lupus, and more recently in severe cases in COVID-19. However, while we were able to characterize the response in COVID-19 patients as autoimmune like, we could not confirm the production of autoantibodies hidden within their antiviral responses,” Matthew Woodruff Instructor, Lowance Center for Human Immunology, Emory University, wrote in the Southern Maryland Chronicle. “…While it is possible that these autoantibodies are benign, or even helpful in a yet-unidentified manner, it’s also possible that they aren’t. Maybe these self-targeted antibody responses do indeed contribute to disease severity, helping explain the delayed onset of severe symptoms in some patients that may correlate with antibody production.”
Researchers believe that what they’re coming to understand about these cases may help them better understand the situation of COVID-10 “long-haulers” — patients who have yet to fully recover from the virus weeks and even months after they first experienced symptoms.Researchers are hoping that these responses aren’t “resulting in the emergence of new, permanent autoimmune disorders,” per Woodruff.
“My colleagues and I sincerely hope that this is not the case – rather, that the emergence of autoantibodies in these patients is a red herring, a quirk of viral immune response in some patients that will resolve on its own,” Woodruff writes. “But we need to do better than hope – we need to ask the right questions and figure out the answers.”
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