What are biomarkers & do they hold the key to predict COVID-19 severity?

A collaborative study between SA, Kenya and London universities would also weigh up how COVID-19 presents in men compared to women.

FILE: Blood samples from the SA National Blood Service. Picture: Kevin Brandt/EWN.

CAPE TOWN - Researchers at a host of universities in South Africa and abroad are investigating whether biomarkers - biological molecules found in one's blood and other body fluids and tissues - can help preempt COVID-19 severity in patients.

It's their latest bid to improve clinical outcomes for severely ill coronavirus patients in intensive care units.

The University of Stellenbosch collaborated with experts from Nairobi University, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), the University of Limpopo and University College London on the project.

Depending on the biomarker, they carry different information about specific diseases, with their levels indicating the severity thereof.

Head of the Chemical Pathology Division at Tygerberg Hospital, Professor Annalise Zemlin, is one of the study’s investigators who has turned her focus to these to formulate more personalised, COVID-19 directed therapeutic approaches.

She explained the beginning of the process to Eyewitness News: "Patients admitted to the ICU get routine samples taken every day, and then also on admission, so we’ve received an extra sample to be taken every time. So that extra sample will be sent to us and will be stored at -70°C."

Zemlin said laboratory analysis of about 450 samples will be performed at Stellenbosch University’s Medical Faculty, with some tests being performed at CPUT.

"Hopefully, the findings of the study will show how the levels of the biomarkers or the changes in levels of biomarkers over time, can predict which patients will have a more serious disease progression and possibly allow us to intervene earlier and prevent this progression," she added.

Scientists would explore biochemical, haematological and immunological biomarkers. These markers would include inflammatory cytokines, markers of vascular endothelial damage as well as novel microRNA (miRNA) markers.

Zemlin said the study would also weigh up how COVID-19 presents in men compared to women.

“One of the aims of our study is to see if there are differences in these specific biomarkers that we’re going to be looking at between men and women, and if there are differences in these biomarkers between these geographical areas in Africa,” she said.

Professor Peter Suwirakwenda Nyasulu from the university’s Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics is the study’s lead investigator.

The collaborative research study was made possible through a two-year US $100 000 grant from the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund.

Download the EWN app to your iOS or Android device.