Searching for biomarkers that predict Covid-19 illness severity

Prof Peter Suwirakwenda Nyasulu. 

By Michelle Galloway

Stellenbosch University is the leader in a novel research project that could assist frontline workers in determining which patients being treated for Covid-19 are at a higher risk for severe illness.

“We are aiming to predict Covid-19 severity and clinical outcome using routine and novel diagnostic biomarkers,” said Prof Peter Suwirakwenda Nyasulu from the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Department of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University (SU). “We are trying to understand if specific biomarkers can tell us which patients are at higher risk for severe illness and death. Knowing this will improve clinical management and allow identification of high-risk Covid-19 patients before they develop more serious symptoms.”

The collaborative project which involves SU, Nairobi University, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the University of Limpopo and University College London has received a two-year, US $100 000 grant from the Covid-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund research strand which is supporting knowledge generation on a range of research questions on the Covid-19 pandemic. The fund involves, among others, the Canadian International Development Research Centre, the Newton Fund, UKAid as well as the South African National Research Foundation and Department of Science and Innovation.

Data on Covid-19 from Africa remain scarce and there is a reliance on Western data for prediction models of disease severity and death. The demographic profile of patients as well as the existence of co-infections like HIV and TB mean that the course of illness could vary hugely in the African setting. The biochemical, haematological and immunological profile of patients may be considerably different resulting in a prognostic model of Covid-19 that may be unique to Africa.

The study will identify biochemical, haematological and immunological biomarkers including novel ones not routinely tested but possibly associated with increased risk of severe illness. These include, but are not limited to, inflammatory cytokines, markers of vascular endothelial damage and novel miRNA markers. Identification of these biomarkers will likely aid development of more personalised, Covid-19 directed therapeutic approaches.

“If we can identify prognostic biomarkers present at baseline we can develop a risk-predictive score of clinical disease severity requiring critical care. The idea being such data can inform frontline workers on specific biomarkers to watch out for that could be indicative of higher likelihood that patients will progressively deteriorate and die,” said Nyasulu.

“The study will initially test samples from patients at three hospitals – Tygerberg Hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital and Pietersburg Hospital in Limpopo,” he added. “We are looking at 150 samples from across the sites. All the testing will be done from serum so multiple tests will be conducted from the same blood sample.”

In addition to the benefit to patients, the study will build capacity and skills in infectious-disease research.

“We are hoping to strengthen African science, build skills and strengthen cross-country, inter-university and interdisciplinary collaboration. Within the Faculty, the Department of Global Health as well as the Departments of Pathology and Medicine are involved, bringing together a range of epidemiological, basic science and clinical expertise.”

“Stellenbosch is the leader in this novel project,” continued Nyasulu. “It was a highly competitive call for Africa and the fact that we received the funding puts the institution on the map globally. We are seen as a partner to work with in delivering good science not just for academic purposes but also of direct benefit to patients.”

“We believe this could be a ground-breaking scientific platform,” he concluded. “The findings could aid substantially in designing effective clinical guidelines for Covid-19 management as well as minimise the rate of suffering and death of those affected.”

Source: Stellenbosch University

Photo by Damien Schumann

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