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Professor Shoumo Bhattacharya has been working with a UK-based biotechnology firm to find out if his research on the ‘pharmacological goldmine’ in tick saliva might offer a treatment option for COVID-19 patients.

Professor Bhattacharya’s work has found that tick saliva could potentially yield many new drugs which could treat disorders ranging from cardiovascular diseases and stroke to arthritis. His research group has identified a group of tick saliva proteins called evasins, which bind to and neutralise chemokines, a group of chemicals key to causing inflammation in the body.

The researchers also worked out the structural trick that enables tick evasins to block a complex pathway that has multiple routes to the same response. What’s more, they can manipulate this structure to make new, custom-made proteins, producing developed triple headed evasins – essentially combining three different types of evasins to maximise the absorption of chemokine messengers responsible for inflammation in the lungs and circulatory system.

 Professor Bhattacharya is now working with ILC Therapeutics to examine the use of these evasins as a potential COVID-19 treatment option for patients whose lungs are badly damaged by the virus and face a critical juncture in recovery.

This collaborative work indicates that evasins could have the potential to prevent the progression of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (known as ARDS), and currently the leading cause of Covid-19 fatalities), by acting as a ‘fire extinguisher’ to put  out the cytokine storms that attack the lungs.

Cytokine storms are the result of the body’s immune system going into overdrive and over-producing dangerous chemical messengers (known as cytokines and chemokines) that activate white blood cells to attack the lungs in Covid-19 patients.

Early research indicates that evasins could extinguish a cytokine storm in the body even if it is already in progress, acting as a late stage treatment option for patients and potentially resulting in a much higher chance of survival and recovery.

Professor Bhattacharya said, “Evasins are designed to evade people’s Innate Immune response, which acts as an inherent protection mechanism against parasitic attack from ticks and other parasites, allowing these invaders to drink their victim’s blood with impunity.

Evasins are designed to turn off the very chemical messengers that play a big part in ARDS. We hope to use something that for millions of years has been used by parasites to attack people to save people instead. Given that evasins function the same in all mammals, we have the potential to gain insight from animal model data very quickly, which would be very beneficial in seeing how effective this treatment option could be.”

“It is hugely promising that there could be a treatment option which may prevent further damage to the lungs and maintain oxygen uptake at a highly critical point in the patient’s journey to recovery.”

ILC Therapeutics Chief Scientific Officer Professor William Stimson added: “This is an area I have researched for many years – I previously worked on SARS and believe that the Innate Immune System’s importance has often been overlooked in favour of the Adaptive Immune System. In the case of Covid-19, evasins could have the potential to work even in extreme conditions of advanced ARDS by putting out the cytokine and chemokine fire raging in the lungs. This could prevent further damage and potentially save patients’ lives at a highly critical stage of the fight against the virus.”

Research is being split between BioCity in Glasgow, Scotland and at Oxford, with initial clinical work likely to be undertaken at the University. Given that evasins have the potential to control a number of inflammatory responses in the lung no matter the cause, the treatment option could have implications for other respiratory conditions such as allergic asthma as well as Covid-19.