Texas A&M researchers discover COVID-19 mechanism that helps it escape immune system

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) – Researchers at Texas A&M have recently discovered a mechanism in COVID-19 that explains how it can escape our immune systems and replicate so intensely in the human body.

It’s been well-known for some time now that COVID-19 causes much more significant illness than other coronaviruses. A team of researchers at Texas A&M, led by Texas A&M Department of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology Professor Koichi Kobayashi, say they’ve found the protein in COVID-19 that is able to suppress that gene and make it harder for the body to detect.

“What we found is that the virus has the ability to decrease the amount of NLRC5 and also it suppresses the function of NLRC5,” Kobayashi said.

NLRC5 is a gene in cells that helps control virus infection so it is unable to replicate. It determines the amount of another gene known as major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I genes that create a pathway for ridding the body of viruses. Kobayashi says MHC class I genes help our body with longer term immunity in the days after infection, as opposed to the hours.

“Every cell has MHC class I, and if they are infected, viral antigen is presented on the MHC class I,” Kobayashi said. “That means that immune cell can’t see it and the infected cell can’t be recognized by our immune system.”

Kobayashi, who is also a professor at Hokkaido University in Japan, says COVID patients have a normal level of MHC class I, but the level of MHC class I should be boosted when someone is infected by a pathogen.

“I’m hoping that because we found the mechanism, we can modify this so that we can have a little bit of a boost in our immune system to fight off the virus,” Kobayashi said. “The patient may be cured quicker than normal, and we also may be able to prevent the severe case.”

“The potential is you could find a drug that would hinder this protein, and by hindering this protein, it would allow the body’s immune system to function more effectively and rid our bodies of the infection more quickly,” CapRock Health System Chief Medical Officer Dr. Long Young said.

Young says this is an important discovery, but he says everyone needs to keep in mind that viruses mutate constantly, which means the clock is ticking on finding a therapeutic to neutralize this protein.

“It’s challenging because if you find a given medication that works on a protein within coronavirus, all the virus has to do is to mutate that one protein, and suddenly your drug can be completely ineffective,” Young said.

Young says one of the fears is that the longer COVID-19 circulates at such high levels, the more likely a variant will emerge that is much more dangerous, infectious, or both.

“We’ve already seen that with the Delta variant, and now we’re seeing it with the Omicron variant,” Young said. “The hope is that we can get the circulation of it down to a level where a mutation is rare.”

Researchers say we’re still a long way off from finding a therapeutic to counteract this problem. Young says the best thing you can do for now is to get vaccinated and get your booster shot.

“It might be tempting to think once we have more medicines, there’s nothing to worry about and everyone will be safe because if they get sick, all they’ll have to do is take one of the new medicines,” Young said. “There’s a couple problems with that thought process. One is that it would require people to get tested and treated early on. Secondly, viruses are very adept at developing mutations that make it where a given medication doesn’t work. Our immune systems can adjust themselves as the virus adjusts over time, whereas a medication can’t. The best thing is to use our immune systems, and the best way to do that is to not get infected, but to get the vaccine so that you get the immunity without the infection.”

Written by Andy Krauss

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