It’s been seen in movies, books, and other literature—the main character has a resistance to the apocalyptic virus, survives, finds the cure and saves the day.
The concept of mutation against disease has been around for years, but only recently has it begun to affect real life.
The first sign of viral resistance was discovered by botanist Sir Rowland Biffen, who published a study isolating a single recessive gene for resistance to the fungus P. striiformis in wheat.
Since then, scientists and medical professionals alike have extensively researched the potential for genetic modification against threats.
This research has proved crucial to the development of genetically modified crops (GMOs), as well as vaccines and medicine for both animals and humans.
Recently, the possibility of people immune to COVID-19 has arisen among many medical professionals, including a team of scientists at New York University.
In early 2020, they set out to sort through the potential genetic factors underlying COVID resistance.
The team used advance genome editing to disable 20,000 cells, then exposed them to COVID; most of them died within a couple of days.
Any cells that live, according to the team, are missing something crucial for virus invasion—meaning they have resistance to COVID-19.
Along with this team, an international group of researchers is looking to recruit people who have never had COVID-19 for the same reasons.
According to Dr. Don Vinh, these people could be the key to eliminating COVID-19 forever.
“We want to find out who are those superpeople, the supermen and the superwomen, who are resistant and why are they resistant?” Vinh told CBC Canada.
This team published previous findings in the Nature Immunology journal and are aiming to further their research with human test subjects.
An ideal candidate is a person who came or is in close quarters with another individual severely affected by COVID-19, but who themselves doesn’t have it.
“There are these people who come to the hospital sick, sometimes deathly sick, with life-threatening COVID-19 and they have a family member or several family members who are totally, totally well—who themselves got tested and found out they weren’t infected,” Vinh said.
According to Vinh, these subjects may possess genes that could develop a product or procedure that eliminates COVID-19 from the get-go.
This would interrupt an infection even earlier than a vaccine and, if possible, also eliminate the prospect of already vaccinated individuals contracting and transmitting the virus.
“If we could abort that initial process, the infection part, through this kind of work, I think that will hopefully be a groundbreaker in our fight against this pandemic,” he said.
About a thousand people have already been recruited to the study.
The plan is to compare genomes in these people with genomes from heavily affected people to determine the differences, if any.
The proteins in these differing genes could be the key to providing protection from COVID-19.
Vinh adds that in recent history, some people have been resistant to previous highly contagious diseases, such as malaria and HIV.
“In all of these infections, what we’ve seen are clusters of people who are exposed, but uninfected and then the molecules responsible for that resistance have been identified and some have even been transformed into drug therapies,” said Vinh.
By using data and results from these studies and infections, the team hopes that they can apply to COVID-19 what they’ve seen in these diseases.
Though it’s happened before, this is a huge step towards ending an almost two-year pandemic.
It could also further research in other incurable diseases.
The study could take over a year, according to the team, but they maintain that the 12 months of hard work will be worth it once COVID subsides for good.