Czech scientists researching molecule responsible for ‘cytokine storms’ – deadly consequence of many COVID-19 infections

Illustrative photo: HM Treasury, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Scientists from Charles University are studying how to calm the phenomenon of the so-called cytokine storm, a violent reaction of the immune system often detected among COVID-19 patients, whose management is seen as important in ensuring their survival. The research project has already garnered interest from the American National Institute of Health and the scientists are hopeful testing in the United States will begin soon.

Around 80 percent of COVID-19 patients suffer only mild symptoms when fighting the COVID-19 coronavirus. However, those who are not so lucky can face a phenomenon known as the cytokine storm, which Professor Karel Smetana, a histologist from the First Faculty of Medicine at Charles University explained to Czech Radio.

Karel Smetana, photo: archive of Charles University

“A cytokine storm is a state in which the immunity system takes its reaction to an intruder too far. If I were to say it simply, it goes crazy and starts damaging itself which can lead to the death of the patient.

“Cytokine storms play a big role in lung failure. In this regard there is a critical molecule known as interleukine-6, which is one of the initiators of the storm. This molecule is very important. There is no immune reaction without it. However, when there is too much interleukine-6 the immune reaction is too powerful, resulting in critical damage to organs and the possible death of the patient.”

Professor Smetana and his colleagues at the Faculty have been researching interleucine-6 for some time already as part of a project called the Centre for Tumour Ecology, because the molecule is involved in conveying information between tumour cells and their surroundings.

They became aware of its possible role in COVID-19 deaths when looking at data that showed patients from Italy and Wuhan in China had very high rates of the molecule in their bodies. Smetana, together with Dr Jan Brábek from the university’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, suggested that interleucine-6 could be an initiator of the COVID-19 cytokine storm and that it would therefore be good to either inhibit the molecule or prevent it from being detected by the patient’s cell receptors.

Interleucine-6, photo: Ramin Herati, CC0

The duo says that there are possibilities how to artificially lower interleucine-6 levels in the body if necessary. One option is through the use of the immunosuppressive drug known as tocilizumab which has already proved itself useful in treating coronavirus infected patients. However, the fact that it has to be bio-technologically produced means that it is expensive and hard to create in sufficient amounts. Another option could be synthetic analogues of the oestrogen hormone whose development is much cheaper.

Ultimately, however, these theories will need to be subject to a major round of testing says Professor Smetana. This is not realistic in the Czech Republic as the country has relatively few cases. But the scientist is very optimistic, as his team has registered interest from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The American National Institute of Health, which has the necessary testing capacities, is very interested, so it is likely testing will take place there. Furthermore, the producers of these synthetic analogues of oestrogens are all American pharmaceutical companies, so it would be logical if testing took place in the United States. That is if they decide to go ahead.”

It would be a major step forward for the scientists whose original paper, which linked the relationship between COVID-19 and interleukine-6, was first received sceptically by academic journals, but has inspired hundreds of related articles since it was published.