Berg, a clinical-stage biotech firm that harnesses artificial intelligence, has contributed to a COVID-19 study that has pinpointed a genetic factor likely behind the prevalence and relative severity of the disease in African-American patients. The results indicate that use of angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) could be harnessed to help manage more serious clinical symptoms in that population.
Niven Narain, Berg’s president and CEO, explained to Outsourcing-Pharma that the study was led by Berg’s chief scientific officer and senior vice president of clinical and translational sciences Rangaprasad Sarangarajan. The study is a follow-up to the company’s previous COVID-19 research using patient biology, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Labs. Berg collaborated with Chas Bountra (pro-vice chancellor of innovation at Oxford University) and Rob Winn (director of the cancer center at Virginia Commonwealth University), thought leaders with a wealth of expertise and experience in ethnic medicine and population disparities.
Berg built a COVID model fueled from data from proteomics of COVID patients. Scientists discovered a correlation of the DD polymorphism (mutations) in the ACE gene in some African and South Asian populations, leading to heightened levels of morbidity and mortality.
Researchers determined African-Americans have a higher incidence of a specific gene that causes the COVID-19 virus to replicate more rapidly. This impacts the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to host cells, found most prominently in the kidneys, Narain said.
“African-Americans tend to have a mutation for this gene that causes their body to make lots of copies of this gene,” he explained. “If this is the gene that COVID-19 is taking advantage of, it’s a simple story—the more copies of this gene you have, the more this spike protein is going to use to make more virus, and it’s going to lead of more of a viral load. If there is more virus hanging around, you will see increased effects of the virus, and side effects.”
The study, “Ethnic Prevalence of Angiotensin Converting Enzyme Deletion (D) Polymorphism and COVID-19 Risk: Rationale for use of Angiotensin Converting Enzyme Inhibitors/Angiotensin Receptor Blockers," was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Oxford University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, the study points toward an increased frequency of an ACE deletion polymorphism in the African-American population; this genetic characteristic has a known association with risk of greater susceptibility to lung and kidney dysfunction, both underlying risk factors for COVID-19 infection, outcomes and increased fatality.
According to researchers, results indicate a strong rationale for the use of ACE inhibitors (ACE-I) and ARBs (AT1 receptor blockers) as promising treatment intervention to mitigate complications in COVID-19 patients. The genetic, scientific and clinical data reportedly provides a compelling argument for the use of ACE-I and ARBs in the clinical management of patients with COVID-19 infections to improve outcomes.
Currently ACE inhibitors and ARBs are used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure. Researchers feel these treatments offer potential in clinical management of COVID-19; Narain told us he hopes world leaders and the larger life-sciences industry take note of the study and its findings.
“We have sent it to heads of state, and ministers of health,” he reported. “Response has been very impressive; we hope it translates to greater awareness and education in the medical community."
Narain also expressed hopes that treating African-American patients with ACE inhibitors or ARBs in hospitals in the near future might help support the study.
“We also are going to be partnering with major hospital systems, and following African-American patients who have been on these drugs. If those people end up having not having as bad an outcome, the mortality rates end up being lower, or cases end up not being as severe, that would be one hell of a validation,” Narain said.