Pangolins’ genetic code may explain their resistance to coronavirus

Hyperaxion May 10, 2020

According to scientists, the absence of two genes would protect the mammal from exaggerated immune system responses to the virus.

When a pathogen enters our body, our immune system produces a response in order to fight this intruder. However, in the case of the new coronavirus, our body’s immune response is so exaggerated that it can cause more harm than good.

In other animals, like pangolins, the immune system reacts differently to the presence of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, as they do not have two genes that we have – and this is apparently an evolutionary advantage. That is why experts suspect that the mammal, consumed as a delicacy in some Asian countries, was a vector of transmission that allowed the virus to “jump” to humans.

Pangolins' genetic code may explain their resistance to coronavirus
(Credit: Wikimedia commons).

With this in mind, a group of researchers from the University of Vienna, Austria, decided to study the immune system of pangolins with the hope of gaining insights into possible treatments for Covid-19. The results of the study were published on Friday (08) in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

“Our work shows that pangolins have survived through millions of years of evolution without a type of antiviral defense that is used by all other mammals,” study co-author Leopold Eckhart said in a statement to the press. According to him, the research indicates that it is precisely the absence of these genes that reduces the intensity of the immune response to Sars-CoV-2 – which, in this case, is an advantage.

The scientists point out, however, that the study did not investigate the impact of these genetic differences on the antiviral response. Therefore, researchers still do not understand how exactly pangolins survive the new coronavirus, and they only know that the lack of these two genes may have something to do with the mammal’s resistance to the microorganism.

Still, the team believes that their finding may help in the search for treatments for Covid-19. The study authors suggest, for example, that pharmaceutical suppression of these two genes may be an alternative. “The main challenge is to reduce the response to the pathogen while maintaining sufficient control of the virus,” explained Eckhart. “An overactivated immune system can be moderated by reducing the intensity or by changing the timing of the defense reaction.”

Related topics:

Coronavirus Covid-19

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