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Do genes partly determine the severity of illness from novel coronavirus infection?

  • May 22, 2020
  • , Asahi , p. 25
  • JMH Translation

By Takeki Hatakawa and Ryutaro Ito, staff writers


A Japanese research group has launched a gene analysis project to study the process by which people fall severely ill with the new coronavirus. Researchers have noticed that while deaths in the U.S. and UK are 300 to 500 per one million, the figure for Japan is only about 6. A group of scientists, who think the difference cannot be explained exclusively by different lifestyles and access to treatment, set the hypothesis that genetic differences among racial groups play a role and hope to determine the validity of the hypothesis through the project. If a specific factor is discovered to affect the severity of the disease, that information can help vaccine development efforts.


Researchers from seven universities and research institutes, including Tokyo and Kyoto universities, are participating in the study. The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) is funding the project. The research will be done in collaboration with 40 or so domestic medical institutions on blood samples collected from 600 patients at every stage of the disease, from asymptomatic to gravely ill. A final report will be issued by September. The chief researcher is Prof. Takanori Kanai of Keio University.


The study will specially focus on human leukocyte antigen (HLA), which controls the human immune system. The researchers will compare HLAs of asymptomatic and severely ill patients to identify genes that are only present in patients with severe conditions. By comparing results with similar gene analysis studies undertaken overseas, the researchers hope that the project will shed light on the reason why comparatively fewer Japanese die from the new coronavirus.


Tokyo Medical and Dental University’s Designated Professor and M&D Data Science Center Director Satoru Miyano, who specializes in gene-analysis, said: “Analysis of virus genes tells only half of the story. Vaccine development will benefit from host gene analysis.” He says that if a gene is discovered that is involved in human resistance to infection by the new coronavirus, it will become possible to determine the risk of infection from blood tests while a person is still in good health. The study may help accelerate development of a vaccine and drugs for treatment.

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