A team of MIT researches has developed a specialized protein that has the ability to soak up the excessive immune response that occurs in severe cases for COVID-19.

“The idea is that they can be injected into the body and bind to the excessive cytokines as generated by the cytokine storm, removing the excessive cytokines and alleviating the symptoms from the infection,” says Rui Qing, an MIT research scientist who is one of the senior authors of the study. Shilei Hao is the lead author of the study, Shuguang Zhang is a senior author of the paper, and David Jin is also an author.

The researchers are hoping that they can start testing the proteins on human cells and in animal models of cytokine release and coronavirus infection.

Zhang began working on this project ten years ago, and it was focused on developing a modified version of membrane-embedded proteins. Jin later approached Zhang’s lab. Jin believed that proteins that mimic the cytokine receptors could help combat cytokine storms. Zhang’s team began designing proteins that could mop up the excessive cytokines in April 2019. Zhang’s team used a hydrophilic version of the protein that could travel easily through the human bloodstream. “The cytokine receptors that we designed will soak up the majority of the excessive cytokines that are released during the cytokine storm,” Jin says.

To further stabilize the proteins in the bloodstream, the team attached an antibody segment called the Fc region. The inclusion of the Fc region makes sure that they are not attacked by the immune system.

The study gained momentum post-March when the evidence began to suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was inducing cytokine storms in some patients, and the receptor proteins could be of help.

“As it turns out, our research initiated in April 2019 is directly relevant to the treatment of COVID-19 infected patients,” Zhang said, “Curiosity-driven, or even proactive research often leads to preparedness, which is key to preventing future disasters.”

The team is confident that this discovery will contribute further to clinical applications in treating viral diseases.

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