Three promising Covid-19 research projects ongoing at NARILIS thanks to the generosity of donors - UNamur fundraising campaign of 2020

Three additional research projects could recently be started at NARILIS thanks to donations from private donors and generous sponsors following the 2020 UNamur fundraising campaign. Through these new research initiatives, our scientists demonstrate once more their commitment to join the global research efforts to fight Covid-19.

Understanding variability in innate immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and heterogeneity in disease severity 

Innate immunity constitutes the first line of defense against pathogens. Activation of the innate immune system leads to the production of multiple interferons and proinflammatory cytokines, triggering host antiviral defense programs. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, one of the important determinants of disease severity appears to be an inappropriate response by the innate immune system. Our new research project seeks to better understand how the body's innate immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2 infection by focusing on ADAR1 protein (Adenosine Deaminase Acting on RNA), a key factor of innate immunity able to induce mutations in the viral genome. The study is led by Prof. Benoît Muylkens and Dr. Damien Coupeau from the UNamur (URVI), in collaboration with Prof. Olivier Denis, Dr. Pierre Bogaerts and Prof. Daniel Te-Din Huang from the CHU UCL Namur (Microbiology laboratory). Our researchers will perform experiments using in vitro cell culture models and nasopharyngeal clinical samples of Covid-19 patients in order to investigate whether SARS-CoV-2 infection modulates the expression and activity of ADAR1 and to know if ADAR1 acts as a pro-viral or anti-viral factor for SARS-CoV-2 replication. This study should help us to explain variability in innate immune response among humans and identify the factors contributing to heterogeneous disease courses.

Covimoa : Collecting blood for SARS-CoV-2 virus detection and serological investigation

While SARS-CoV-2 infections are commonly diagnosed using RT-PCR to detect viral RNA in respiratory samples, the presence of SARS-CoV-2 virus can also be detected in blood samples, even at very low viral loads. The “Covimoa” project, driven by Prof. Jonathan Douxfils from the UNamur (Pharmacy department), relies on the HD-X Simoa, a cutting-edge equipment available at QUALIblood s.a that allows the quantification of extremely low level of analyte (in the femtomolar range). The first aim of the project is to study the relationship between viral loads and antibody levels measured in blood samples from patients with Covid-19. This may, for example, provide evidence of high-level viremia and low antibody response in patients with severe Covid-19. Secondly, the project aims to determine whether levels of SARS-CoV-2 viremia could predict Covid-19 disease outcomes and whether it may serve as a useful biomarker of severe illness. Finally, this project should demonstrate that finger prick blood testing is effective for large-scale SARS-CoV-2 seroprevalence studies.

This research is conducted on blood samples taken from Covid-19 patients during their hospital stay at the Clinique Saint-Pierre Ottignies and the Clinique Saint-Luc Bouge. This collaborative project involves clinical pharmacists Jean-Louis Bayart (Clinique Saint-Pierre Ottignies) and Julien Favresse (Clinique Saint-Luc Bouge), as well as PhD student Hélène Haguet (UNamur, Pharmacy department) and researcher Clara David (QUALIblood).

Unraveling the mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2-induced autoimmunity

“Long Covid” is defined as the persistence of debilitating symptoms, including neurological manifestations, for many months after SARS-CoV-2 infection. Several studies suggest that the production of autoantibodies may be involved in the development of a post-Covid syndrome. Functional autoantibodies directed against intracellular and neuronal surface proteins are indeed found in severe Covid-19 cases presenting neurological symptoms.

The project designed by neurobiologist Prof. Charles Nicaise (UNamur, URPhyM, Laboratory Neurodegeneration and Regeneration) and virologist Prof. Nicolas Gillet (UNamur, URVI) aims at deciphering the mechanisms underlying antineuronal autoantibody production in Covid-19. Upon infecting in vitro cultured neuronal cells with SARS-CoV-2, the researchers will analyze the neuronal innate antiviral response. This experimental study will allow them to test the hypothesis that a dysfunctional innate immune response may contribute to virus-induced autoimmunity.