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Why does the severity of COVID-19 vary so much between infected individuals? A team of scientists from the Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton, led by Dr. Jeremy Hirota, is working to understand host immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The team, working at the Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health, will study how these immune responses may differ between individuals. The project has been awarded several grants, including funding from the Ontario government announced today.

“It is clear that some individuals respond better than others to the same SARS-CoV-2 virus.  The differential response to the same virus suggests that each individual patient, with their unique characteristics, heavily influences COVID-19 disease severity,” said Dr. Hirota, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Respiratory Mucosal Immunology at McMaster University.  

Scientists have previously determined that entry of SARS-CoV-2 into the cell occurs via two receptors on the cell surface, known as ACE2 and TMPRSS2. In a recent paper, Dr. Hirota’s team hypothesized the existence of additional pathways that the virus may be using to infect host cells. The peer-reviewed paper was recently published in the European Respiratory Journal.

To find these additional infection pathways, Dr. Hirota’s team is utilizing nasal swabs that were collected for clinical diagnoses of COVID-19. These samples present an opportunity to examine the remaining genetic material to determine which genes are expressed by patients’ cells and associate this information with patients’ disease progression.

“We think it is the lung immune system that differs between COVID-19 patients, and by understanding which patients’ lung immune systems are helpful and which are harmful, we may be able to help physicians pro-actively manage the most at risk-patients.”

Researchers will correlate positive and negative COVID-19 cases with clinical outcomes, and ultimately use this data to generate predictive algorithms related to morbidity and mortality. The aim is to use this predictive information to optimize health care delivery.

As part of their COVID-19 Innovation Challenge, Roche Canada awarded the research team a $100,000 grant. The project has also received a $70,000 grant from, managed by the Thistledown Foundation in Canada.

On Tuesday, July 21, an additional grant for the project was announced by the Ontario government, after the project was selected to receive funding from the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund.

The grants are shared with Dr. Andrew Doxey of the University of Waterloo and Adjunct Professor at McMaster University, with whom Dr. Hirota has several ongoing collaborations. Dr. Marek Smieja (Disease Diagnostics and Development Group at St. Joe’s), Dr. Kjetil Ask (Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health), Dr. Guillaume Pare (McMaster Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology Lab), and Dr. Karen Mossman (McMaster Immunology Research Centre) are also contributing to the funded project.

An expert in respiratory mucosal immunology, Dr. Hirota’s previous work has examined the harmful effects of tobacco smoke and air pollution on the immune response of airway epithelial cells. More recently, his lab has begun to examine cannabis smoke under the same context.

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