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Anti-inflammatory molecules used to treat Cystic Fibrosis might also help fight COVID-19

An illustration of COVID-19

By Sarah Marshall

Many efforts are underway at USU to support the fight against the pandemic, some of which involve applying existing research and knowledge to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Roopa Biswas, associate professor of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics, and Biochemistry, and her colleagues at USU have long studied Ribonucleic acids, or RNAs, as well as short segments of RNAs, known as microRNAs or miRNAs. These molecules regulate the expression of genes -- the process by which the instructions in our DNA are converted into a functional product, such as a protein. RNAs have recently emerged as an important therapeutic target for COVID-19, and are being used to develop COVID-19 vaccines.  

Over the years, Biswas and her colleagues have sought to understand how abnormal levels of RNAs can lead to inflammation in pulmonary disorders such as cystic fibrosis, in which the inflammatory response damages the lung and its airways. Through their previous research, the scientists identified certain miRNA-derivatives that have anti-inflammatory properties, which mitigate this lung destruction. Today, they’re looking to see whether those anti-inflammatory miRNAs could be used to mitigate lung damage caused by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

A portrait photo of Roopa Biswas
Roopa Biswas, associate professor of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics,
and Biochemistry, and her colleagues at USU have long studied Ribonucleic
acids, or RNAs, which have recently emerged as an important therapeutic target
for COVID-19, and are being used to develop COVID-19 vaccines.
(USU Photo)

Biswas explained that she and her USU associates, in collaboration with Dr. Samarjit Das and Dr. Elizabeth Tucker at The Johns Hopkins University, are focusing on how short segments of non-coding RNAs can interfere with protein formation, which in turn could reduce inflammation and ultimately suppress the virus.  Some of these RNAs are designed to directly target the virus  itself.

“Our goal is to suppress inflammatory proteins, like Interleukins (IL-6, IL-8, IL-1-), which play a major role in the damage caused by SARS-CoV-2,” Biswas said. 

So far, their initial tests to determine how well these anti-inflammatory non-coding RNAs reduce lung damage caused by SARS-CoV-2 are seeing promising results, she said.

In addition to the RNA study with Johns Hopkins, Biswas and her fellow USU researchers are also working with scientists, under a material transfer agreement, at the regenerative medicine biotech company NellOne Therapeutics on a study that’s looking at a protein called NELL1 to treat the severe tissue damage from viral infections.

This protein has been previously shown to restore injured bone, cartilage, skeletal and heart muscle tissues via mechanisms (e.g. regulation of over-inflammation, stem cell recruitment, blood vessel formation and balancing cell growth and maturation) that are also necessary to mitigate respiratory tissue damage caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection. The biotech company has a proprietary composition of the NELL1 protein that Biswas is now testing at USU to treat SARS-CoV-2 infected mice. 

“As a scientist, I have always wanted to make a contribution to science,” Biswas said. “I feel fortunate to have an opportunity to work on COVID-19 related research. I’m also hopeful that our endeavors will lead to a potential therapy for COVID-19, which in turn could ultimately help save lives.”

Researchers at USU have been studying how abnormal levels of Ribonucleic acids, or RNAs, can lead to inflammation in pulmonary disorders such as cystic
fibrosis. They are now applying their previous findings to see whether certain anti-inflammatory microRNAs could be used to mitigate lung damage caused
by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Image)