Scientists from the University of Sheffield in the UK and Stanford University in the US have identified certain genetic signals in individuals who develop severe Covid-19 infection. 

The team leveraged machine learning and discovered more than 1,000 genes associated with severe Covid-19 cases that needed breathing support or were fatal. 

Furthermore, the team detected specific kinds of cells in which these genes act up. 

This research is claimed to be one of the first studies to establish a relation between coronavirus-linked genes and particular biological functions.

To unravel the genetics behind severe Covid-19, the researchers utilised various large data sets. The first data set included genetic information from lung tissue of healthy humans. 

This data aided in detecting gene expression in 19 separate lung cell types, including epithelial cells.

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These cells line the respiratory tract and serve as the first line of defence against infection.

Other data came from the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, a genetic study of critically ill Covid-19 patients. 

The team analysed genetic hints in the data such as DNA mutations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, which could show if someone is at an increased risk for severe Covid-19. 

They assessed if some mutations happened more or less often in patients with severe Covid-19.

The team was able to establish which genes were malfunctioning and within which types of cells by overlapping the mutations onto the cell-specific genomes.

Furthermore, the researchers found that severe Covid-19 is mostly linked with a weakened response from two immune cells, natural killer (NK) cells and T cells, using a machine learning tool. 

University of Sheffield Department of Neuroscience NIHR clinical lecturer Dr Johnathan Cooper-Knock said: “NK cells, which humans are born with and are the body’s first line of defence against infection, are known for their ability to destroy viruses and cancer cells. 

“We found that in people with severe coronavirus infection, critical genes in NK cells are expressed less, so there’s a less robust immune response.”

Currently, trials of NK cell infusions for severe Covid-19 are progressing.