Wolfgang Fischle’s research group, in collaboration with Professor Arnab Pain, aims to understand why a large proportion of individuals get infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus but don’t develop any recognizable disease, whereas some patients progress to life-threatening symptoms. Since the rate of patients developing severe COVID-19 is relatively high, it is unlikely that genetic variances are the sole cause for this phenomenon. The group is testing whether variations in the epigenome of individuals are key determinants of disease susceptibility. While all cells in the body share the same genetic material in the form of DNA, differential expression of the genome in different cell types and in different individuals is directed by epigenetic mechanisms. Besides other aspects, these involve chemical modifications of DNA, such as methylation.
To define signatures of COVID-19 susceptibility, the team is analyzing DNA methylation patterns of samples obtained from asymptomatic, mildly and severely affected COVID-19 patients. The data are bioinformatically integrated with disease severity, viral load, survival, time to recovery and a number of other parameters to derive diagnostic tools for identifying patients that will require special attention by healthcare systems, in terms of isolation or intensive care long before they develop life-threatening symptoms. This early intervention is targeted at improving disease outcome.