LAHORE         -       The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has approved Rs10.3 million research funding for a project of University of Health Sciences (UHS) that will trace “immunological, viral and genetic basis of COVID-19 in local patients”.

The funding is approved under Rapid Research Grant (RRG) initiative, launched by HEC with the support of the World Bank. The principal investigator of this research project which would take one year to complete, is UHS immunology department’s associate professor, Dr Shah Jahan.

Dr Shah Jahan has already won five research projects grants. Being an active researcher, he has been awarded ‘Research Productivity Award’ by Pakistan Council for Science and Technology (PCST), and Best University Teacher Award by HEC, US-NAS Fellowship for One-Health. He has published 62 international research publications with 172 impact factor. He also holds the charge of UHS Resource Lab for Research in Biomedical Sciences.

Dr Shah Jahan while talking about his research project said that besides other things his team wanted to know if certain genetic differences might separate people who fell severely ill with COVID-19 from those who contracted the infection but hardly developed any symptoms.

“Genetics can explain why some COVID-19 patients fare worse than others”, he said adding that his project would mainly focus on immune pattern and genetics of local patients.

He further said that many factors were involved in the pathogenesis of COVID-19 in Pakistan including host immunity and genetic response to viral infection.  “The pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 infection in humans is unclear and immunity is a strong defence against invasive pathogens as still, we are waiting for the vaccine”, Dr Shah Jahan explained.

UHS immunology department’s head, Prof Nadeem Afzal, who is one of the investigators, elaborated that the immune system could react to viruses, partially because of specific genes that help cells spot unfamiliar bugs when they enter the body. The genes, known as human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, contain instructions to build proteins that bind to bits of a pathogen; those proteins serve as warning flags to alert immune cells, he said. 

He said that the immune cells, once trained to recognize these bits, jumpstart the process of building antibodies to target and destroy the invasive germ.

“If someone was previously exposed to a virus and had the right HLA types, then it is theoretically possible that they could also generate an earlier immune response against the novel SARS-CoV-2,” Prof Nadeem said. On the other hand, exposure to a similar virus could leave the body ill-equipped to fight off the new one, if, for instance, “the body is using an old set of tools that aren’t ideally suited to address the new problem,” he added.

Dr Shah Jahan said the immunological changes, antibodies level in different patients groups with HLA typing, Cytokines level and expression of genes involved in immunity would be studied in COVID-19 patients with mild and severe symptoms, who were hospitalized or otherwise, as compared to a normal, healthy population to find therapeutic targets and immune modulators that were important in coronavirus infection. 

“By this research, the potential pathogenesis of COVID-19, its molecular mechanisms and other key players including localized factors (immune responses, ethnicity, genetics, lifestyle,etc.) would be determined”, he said. He said that research would involve sequencing of SARS-CoV2 strains and host genes from different infection clusters in Punjab including Islamabad, Peshawar Karachi, Lahore, Gujrat, Jehlum, Rawalpindi and Multan.