A team of scientists at Oxford University have identified a gene present in 60% of people of South Asian descent that doubles the risk of respiratory failure from COVID-19.
The group was led by Professors James Davies and Jim Hughes at the University of Oxford’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine and published their revelatory findings in the journal Nature Genetics. They had previously already identified a stretch of DNA that appeared to significantly affect over-65s but had been unable to establish how exactly the genetic signal functioned.
Since then, they have begun using ground-breaking AI technology to analyse how the strain affects hundreds of different cells from across the body. From here, they discovered that the cells in the lungs were disproportionately affected and since then they have used new techniques to ‘zoom down on the DNA at the genetic signal’ and establish its effects.
The high-risk gene is thought to prevent cells in the lungs and airways from responding to the virus as they should, therefore, increasing the risk of organ failure.
Dr Downes, who led the team behind the discovery, noted that the use of artificial intelligence was crucial as it allowed the team to focus on so many different genes at the same time. He said, ‘Surprisingly, as several other genes were suspected, the data showed that a relatively unstudied gene called LZTFL1 causes the effect.’
The findings are particularly significant as they may go some way to explaining why people of South Asian descent have been so disproportionately affected by COVID-19. One of the most substantial unexplained issues of the pandemic is how those from different ethnic backgrounds have been impacted and appeared to respond to treatment. So far, it has largely been blamed on socio-economic factors, but this suggests that some of the explanation could lie in genetic differences. The gene is thought to be present in at least 60% of those with South Asian ancestry, in contrast with just 15% of people of European descent and 2% of those from African-Caribbean backgrounds.
It is important to note that as the gene has been shown to affect the lungs and not the immune system as a whole, the benefits of vaccination are largely unaffected. As Professor Davies stated: “Although we cannot change our genetics, our results show that the people with the higher risk gene are likely to particularly benefit from vaccination. Since the genetic signal affects the lung rather than the immune system it means that the increased risk should be cancelled out by the vaccine.”
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