JAN 06, 2022 5:00 AM PST

Worryingly High Levels of Free Radicals in COVID Patients

WRITTEN BY: Tara Fernandez

COVID-19 infections trigger widespread oxidative damage, says new research by scientists from the Baylor College of Medicine. Findings from the study (that involved 60 COVID-19 patients) revealed that those hospitalized for the infection showed significantly elevated levels of oxidative stress and a sharp decrease in the cellular antioxidant glutathione.

An imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body causes oxidative stress, and high levels of circulating free radicals can ultimately lead to cell and tissue damage. During infections such as COVID-19, natural immune responses can temporarily spike oxidative stress in the body. However, experts say that chronically high oxidative stress levels have been linked to a number of serious diseases.

“Increased oxidative stress and reduced glutathione levels are associated with a number of conditions including aging, diabetes, HIV infection, neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular disorders, neurometabolic diseases, obesity, and others,” said one of the study’s authors, Rajagopal Sekhar.

Free radicals are highly reactive species that can compromise cell organelles and DNA. Cells produce a powerful antioxidant called glutathione to shield themselves from the harmful effects of these molecules. Low glutathione levels mean that free radicals don’t get neutralized, and cells and tissues are left vulnerable.

The team measured oxidative stress and glutathione levels of the cohort of COVID-19 patients admitted to the hospital. They were surprised to note that COVID-19 patients aged 21 to 40 and 41 to 60 were glutathione deficient and under high oxidative stress.

“The finding that younger people with COVID-19 also are glutathione deficient and have elevated oxidative stress and oxidant damage is really surprising, because we do not normally see these defects in younger age groups,” explained Sekhar.

In their study, Sekhar and colleagues suggest that administering a glutathione precursor treatment called GlyNAC could help COVID-19 patients experiencing oxidative stress from inflammation and help fight off the infection.

About the Author
  • Tara Fernandez has a PhD in Cell Biology and has spent over a decade uncovering the molecular basis of diseases ranging from skin cancer to obesity and diabetes. She currently works on developing and marketing disruptive new technologies in the biotechnology industry. Her areas of interest include innovation in molecular diagnostics, cell therapies, and immunology. She actively participates in various science communication and public engagement initiatives to promote STEM in the community.
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