A trio of scientists focusing on mitochondria research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Department of Life Sciences led by Dan Mishmar, Ph.D. suggest it could be the moment now to “rethink” COVID-19 as a pure respiratory condition, as the contagion may actually represent an “immune-and-respiratory” disease. With new peer-reviewed study results published in iScience, the group of genetics researchers specializing in mitochondria suggest the unusual nature of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. While classified as a respiratory disease, plenty of immune system challenges ensue. The Israeli scientists point out that their findings raise the possibility that over-the-counter antioxidants perhaps someday could be used to help treat patients.

The Premise

Driving this research was the Israeli specialists’ mission to explore the role of mitochondria in the novel coronavirus.  With their role overlooked, the study team analyzed available bulk RNA-seq datasets from a panel of COVID-19 patients as well as corresponding healthy controls. The trio used data associated with RNA transcripts derived from tissue samples from both blood and respiratory tracts of both people with COVID-19 and healthy controls.

The study data categories:

CategoryHealthy ControlsCOVID-19 Patients
Blood data sets48119
Two respiratory tract data sets157524

The findings surprised the investigators as reported in an interview with the Times of Israel. Dr. Mishmar reported, “We expected to see a change in the mitochondria in the lung but not the blood, because after all, COVID-19 is supposed to be a lung disease.” The opposite seems true based on the study results. He continued, “We saw no change to mitochondria in the lung, but saw a significant change in the blood, with a reduction in mitochondrial gene expression.”Subscribe to the Trialsitenews “COVID-19” ChannelNo spam – we promise

But could the recent results of this study suggest COVID-19 is first and foremost an immune disease?

The Hypothesis

Dan Mishmar and his team articulate that SARS-CoV-2 impacts and disrupts mitochondria leading to some of the more dangerous risks associated with COVID-19 such as the cytokine storm.

Mishmar shared with Nathan Jeffay of the Times of Israel that, “Until now the mitochondria as a system was almost overlooked, and now we’re identifying it as a central player in the disease and starting to explore how to help and improve mitochondria function and potentially lead to an improvement in symptoms.”

Mishmar continued,

We asked ourselves why we were seeing changes in the mitochondria of the blood, not in the lung. This led us to analyze in-depth the data coming from single cells that we had from patients. This analysis supported what we found in the blood, namely the hypothesis that the result in the blood probably stems from the immune system. It’s likely that its dysfunction in the immune systems leads to both the cytokine storm that is so characteristic to COVID, and to lung disease.”

Why are Antioxidants Relevant?

The Israeli research leads the authors to consider the prospect of antioxidants. But why? Various research studies in Italy point to the possibility of applying antioxidants to immune disorders. These are compounds that inhibit oxidation, the chemical reaction that generates free radicals and chain reactions that may damage the cells or organisms. Examples of such antioxidants include thiols and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). For example, in nature to balance oxidative stress, plants and animals maintain complex systems of overlapping antioxidants like glutathione.

Mishmar told the Times of Israel  “There are over-the-counter drugs, or strictly speaking supplements, that could help to do exactly that — they are antioxidants. They reduce the signals generated by the mitochondria, and given that the cytokine storm is essentially a signaling storm, could be very helpful in preventing this from happening.”

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a public research university in Beersheba, Israel. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has five campuses: the Marcus Family Campus, Beer Sheva; the David Bergmann Campus, Beer Sheva; the David Tuviyahu Campus, Beer Sheva; the Sede Boqer Campus, and Eilat Campus. 

The Life Science Department includes 85 Ph.D. students, 20 post-doctoral researchers, 67 MSc students, and a total of 510 undergrads.

Lead Research/Investigator

Dan Mishmar, Ph.D. 

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