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San Antonio Scientists Uncover One Way The COVID-19 Virus Hides From The Immune System

Dr. Yogesh Gupta in his lab at UT Health San Antonio.
Brian Phillips
UT Health San Antonio
Dr. Yogesh Gupta in his lab at UT Health San Antonio.

San Antonio scientists have uncovered one of the disguises used by SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — to hide from the immune system. They are metal ions that everyone has circulating in their body.

Dr. Yogesh Gupta is an assistant professor of biochemistry and structural biology at UT Health San Antonio and an investigator with its Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute. He said metal ions, like magnesium, manganese, and calcium, are often found in high concentrations in COVID-19 patients who are very sick.

“What has been observed in COVID-19 patients is that there is some correlation with the disease severity with the level of metal ions,” Gupta said.

Gupta and his colleagues wanted to know why this might happen, and they discovered that in some patients, the COVID virus uses these metal ions to hide from the immune system.

“SARS-CoV-2 utilize metal ions to change the structure of its own RNA," Gupta said. "Once the structure is changed, then this RNA looks very similar to the human messenger RNA. Now, the immune cells or immune system cannot really distinguish what is foreign, and what is self. And that is a problem.”

It’s a problem because if the immune system doesn’t see an invader, it can’t fight it. Gupta says this discovery may lead to better treatments for COVID-19.

“Now we have a better idea of how we can design specific small molecules that can block the activity. And those small molecules could potentially be developed as effective antivirals,” Gupta said.

Not just for COVID-19, Gupta added, but for all coronaviruses.

Gupta is the senior author of the research on metal ions and COVID-19 published June 2 in the journal Nature Communications.

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