UK researchers have identified a blood test that could help predict which Covid-19 patients are at greatest risk of becoming critically ill.
A new study by the University of Southampton has shown that testing for five cytokines, which are proteins that are released into the bloodstream following an infection, could help identify those who face life-threatening overstimulation of immune defences due to the disease.
While cytokines help the immune system suppress infection, an overproduction of these proteins can cause hyperinflammation, which can seriously harm or even kill the patient.
The researchers said their work, published in the journal Respiratory Research, could help identify which Covid-19 patients are at greater risk of hyperinflammation, or cytokine storm, and tailor treatments accordingly to modify their immune responses.
Our findings suggest that testing for both Covid-19 and cytokines at the point-of-care is feasible and in the future may identify infected patients and the most appropriate treatment for them, in near real-time
Dr Tristan Clark, of the University of Southampton, who co-led the study, said: “Our findings suggest that testing for both Covid-19 and cytokines at the point-of-care is feasible and in the future may identify infected patients and the most appropriate treatment for them, in near real-time.”
As part of the study, the scientists analysed blood samples from 100 Covid-19 patients between March 20 and April 29 2020.
They found that high levels of five cytokines – known as IL-6, IL-8, TNF, IL-1β and IL-33 – in the patients’ bloodstream were associated with a greater chance of needing intensive care, artificial ventilation and of dying.
The proteins IL-1β and IL-33 showed the biggest effect, the researchers said.
The team hope that by accurately identifying which cytokines are driving hyperinflammation in Coivd-19 patients, doctors could target them with cytokine blockers.
One such treatment – an IL-33 blocker – is currently being tested in UK trials, they said.
Professor Tom Wilkinson, of the University of Southampton, who also led the study, said: “These findings, from the ongoing Covid research programme in Southampton, have identified important inflammatory signals which will help steer the development of treatment strategies for this new disease.
“It is increasingly apparent that Covid is highly heterogeneous.
“Only by applying these techniques to stratify the condition will we be able to target the key mechanisms of the disease with the best treatment for that individual.”