Patients with these conditions are more likely to die from the coronavirus. Three Texas Tech University faculty members are looking to improve the odds.
As the coronavirus began to spread around the globe early this year and its death toll mounted, it became apparent patients with obesity and diabetes faced a disproportionately higher mortality rate.
Now, with a $160,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an internationally renowned obesity researcher at Texas Tech University and two colleagues are rapidly exploring why these two groups are more likely to be affected and whether a simple change might improve their odds of survival.
Dr. Nikhil Dhurandhar, professor and chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences; Rajesh Khare, professor of chemical engineering and assistant dean for strategic initiatives in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering; and Vijay Hegde, a molecular and cell biologist and assistant professor of nutritional sciences, are using an innovative, interdisciplinary approach.
To determine why the coronavirus affects people with obesity, they will examine whether fat cells act as a reservoir to facilitate COVID-19 infection. To determine why it affects people with diabetes, they will examine whether certain diabetes medications might actually encourage infection by increasing the number of receptors the virus, SARS-CoV-2, uses to enter cells.
"We hope to determine whether having a greater number of fat cells, as in obesity, may contribute to a greater severity of COVID-19," Dhurandhar said. "Also, we should be able to identify diabetes drugs that do not promote infection. Thus, our research is expected to provide information to clinicians to make decisions about the use of diabetes medications.
"In cases of people with COVID-19, medical providers may be able to switch from a diabetes drug that may potentially harm individuals due to its ability to promote SARS-CoV-2 infection, to a drug that is innocuous. This simple change may be able to save a lot of lives."
Khare will use a chemical-engineering-based molecular-modeling technique to determine how SARS-CoV-2 binds to cell receptors in the presence of various diabetes medications. Dhurandhar and Hegde will conduct biological experiments involving fat cells and diabetes medications.
The research is funded through the NSF's Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) mechanism, which supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. Such work could be considered especially "high risk – high payoff" in the sense that it involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.
While the results may have worldwide ramifications, they're particularly critical in the U.S., where two-thirds of adults have a higher-than-healthy body weight and about 42% have obesity, Dhurandhar said. About 85% of people with Type 2 diabetes have obesity.
"There is an urgent need to understand the biology and mode of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the context of the existing obesity and its comorbidities," Dhurandhar said. "We feel extremely grateful to be able to participate in a small way in a solution to a disease that has affected the entire world, and we also are excited about the possibility that our timely research may save many lives."
The first results are expected as soon as September.