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UA researchers find enzyme similar to one in snake venom could be leading cause of COVID-19 death

Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 6:15 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A desert animal many of us are all too familiar with, the rattlesnake, is playing a major role in COVID-19 research.

University of Arizona researchers have found an enzyme, which is in the same family as an enzyme in the rattlesnake’s venom, could be a leading cause of death for COVID-19 patients.

“It’s called the secreted phospholipase A2, and it’s the Group 2 version of it,” said Floyd Chilton, Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Director, The Precision Wellness Initiative UA.

Chilton partnered with researchers from Stony Brook University and Wake Forest School of Medicine to analyze blood samples from COVID-19 patients. They found high levels of this enzyme in COVID-19 patients, “which has similarities to an active enzyme in rattlesnake venom, is found in low concentrations in healthy individuals,” the university said in a press release.

The enzyme has anti-bacterial properties and helps fight off infections initially. Scientists think it was likely humans’ first antibiotic.

“Normally this is released to protect against bacterial infection or viral infections, so it’s normally a defense mechanism,” said Chilton.

Chilton and his partners found COVID-19 patients who had died had some of the highest levels of this enzyme in their bodies ever recorded, similar to levels found after patients died from a sepsis infection.

“Was I surprised at these levels? Yes,” said Chilton. “Some people, and we don’t know why, some people release incredibly high amounts of this into circulation.”

It’s an issue because, like the rattlesnake venom, the enzyme at high levels can “shred” the membranes of vital organs. In fact, using computer modeling, they found 75 percent of people releasing these high amounts of this enzyme, along with poor kidney function, would likely die from COVID-19. Chilton said the body typically releases this to fight infections, but as the body breaks down and organs begin to fail, the cell membranes look similar to what the enzyme is trying to fight off, therefore attacking its own host.

“It is a disease resistance mechanism until it has the capacity to turn on the host human,” said Chilton.

For researchers now, they may be able to predict who lives or dies based on levels of this enzyme found in the body and find cures to target the cause, potentially saving lives across the globe. Some medicines being tested for snake bites might be able to be repurposed, but more research needs to be done.

“We could take a very precision type of medicine approach utilizing those same inhibitors,” said Chilton.

Researchers are now looking to see if this enzyme could play a role in long-haul COVID symptoms.

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