Hawaii researchers suspect DNA may contribute to COVID-19 symptoms

Coronavirus

There are still a lot of unknowns about COVID-19, but what is known is that people are affected differently by the virus, now a Honolulu company and a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa are teaming up to find out who is more prone to be on the severe end of the disease.

No matter the age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status people are all prone to contracting the coronavirus, but scientists suspect DNA may determine why some people may experience more severe symptoms than others.

The CEO of LifeDNA, Cyril Moukarzel and U.H. Associate Professor, Maarit Tiirikainen, are starting research that aims to find out if certain populations are more at risk for complications by COVID-19.

Moukarzel said, “As you know, a lot of people are asymptomatic when they get COVID-19 while others end up in the hospital, of course, age and predisposition to other conditions have an impact, but we’re looking how the DNA can actually contribute.” 

He said the DNA make-up is largely the same for everybody, but there are some differences, some people may have more of a certain receptor or protein in their lungs that COVID-19 latches onto.

“We are looking specifically at the ACE2 receptors so how many of those you have,” Moukarzel said. “That’s what the virus attaches to, so you genetically might have less than others and that would be beneficial, in this case, if you have more then it’s easier for the virus to come in.”  

The genetics in different ethnic backgrounds could play a role in the way the virus multiplies, Tiirikainen said their research wants to find out how big of a role that is.

Tiirikainen said, “If you look at the infection rates and mortality around the globe with this pandemic, you could see that there are big differences between different nations.” 

She said Hawaii is the perfect place for this research due to its diversity.

Tiirikainen said, “We would need to get DNA samples from people who have been tested, both tested negative and positive for the virus so we can start comparing if there are genetic differences.” 

The researchers are contacting labs and physicians to get DNA samples, crowdsourcing may also be an option, they hope their findings can help identify groups who may be more at risk in a future outbreak.

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