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June 30, 2023

Big Data Reveals Surprising Defense Against COVID-19

Since people with asthma often get sicker — and experience worse complications — from common respiratory infections, doctors feared what COVID-19 might bring.

“If you’d asked me in March 2020, I’d have said the pandemic was going to be really bad for my asthma patients. But we saw the opposite,” says Matt Altman, MD, MPhil, who treats patients with allergies and asthma at UW Medicine and conducts research at BRI. “Instead of getting severely ill, our asthma patients tended to have mild COVID-19, and some never got sick at all.”

This pattern was especially true among people who have the most common type of asthma (known as T2 asthma), which includes allergy-induced asthma. People who have the less common non-T2 asthma tended to get sicker than those with T2 asthma. 

Doctors and researchers were perplexed: Could having asthma — which typically leaves people more vulnerable to respiratory illness — offer some innate protection from COVID-19? And how could they find out?

Blog Main Bio Naresh Jayavelu (Editorial)

Enter Naresh Doni Jayavelu, PhD, a BRI bioinformatician. Bioinformatics is a specialized area of research that involves using computer technology to find meaningful patterns within large sets of biological data. Drs. Jayavelu and Altman worked with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, NIAID and Seattle Children’s Research Institute to learn exactly why people with T2 asthma often don’t get as sick as others when they get COVID-19. 

“We call research like this bedside-to-bench because we see something unexpected in the clinic and then go back to the lab to try to figure out what’s happening,” Dr. Altman says.

Unexplained Protection

Dr. Jayavelu always wanted to be a medical doctor, but the enormous cost of medical school put that dream out of reach. Instead, he became a chemical engineer. Still, the desire to advance medicine never left his mind. 

“I learned about systems biology and found it fascinating, so I enrolled in a PhD program,” he says. “Now, I apply mathematical and statistical principles to human disease research.”

Dr. Jayavelu joined BRI as the pandemic started, and was soon using his expertise in data analytics to learn why some people with asthma seem to resist severe COVID-19. Sifting through huge swaths of data collected from samples from children with asthma revealed a surprising finding: Inflammation in the lungs took away the virus’ ability to make copies of itself and spread through the body. He even found the exact genes and cells behind this process. 
“We were surprised to learn that T2 inflammation makes it harder to get infected in the first place, and prevents the virus from becoming more severe,” Dr. Altman says. 

Data Experts Fuel Discoveries

While vaccines have been the key to curbing COVID-19, learning about other means of protection is still important — and fascinating. 

“We read about unlikely sources of protection in textbooks, like how having one copy of the gene for sickle cell disease can help protect against malaria. But it was fascinating to see this play out firsthand,” Dr. Altman says. “Other than age, asthma seems to be the best intrinsic protection from severe COVID-19. This study explained exactly why that is and could be extremely relevant to understanding protection and risk of future coronaviruses.”

Findings like this underscore the crucial role bioinformaticians play in modern medicine. 

“As doctors, we see unusual things like unexplained symptoms or side effects every day. But we can’t always tell if there is a larger pattern by looking at the patients in front of us,” Dr. Altman says. “That’s why we need people who can analyze these patterns and generate really high-quality big data — and somebody smart enough to know how to sift through it and find what’s important. That’s what Naresh has done.”

Dr. Jayavelu is quick to share the credit. His team meets every week to present their work and talk through any challenges. 

“The best part about our team is how we work together and share ideas,” he says. “Not everybody is listed as an author on this research, but everyone contributed, directly or indirectly, to its success.”

Featured Data Genomics Jayavelu

Patterns in Genomic Data Help Explain Why Asthma Can Protect You From COVID-19

Dr. Jayavelu used 10X Genomics technology to generate huge data sets about which genes are expressed in which cell types. Each color represents a different cell type, helping scientists zero in on the genes expressed in certain types of cells. Understanding which genes are expressed in which cell types can illuminate patterns that help explain a person’s risk for a disease.

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