Selfless Science

An interdisciplinary research working group formed by NASA scientist Afshin Behesti has transformed to become the Coronavirus International Research Team. Composed of biologists, virologists, epidemiologists, and technologists, the group — which includes more than 100 researchers across 31 institutions — is sharing data to explore how the coronavirus functions in the body.

Using recently released public data, multiple researchers within the group, including UNC-Chapel Hill biochemist and age researcher Jonathan Schisler, are studying the molecular signatures of respiratory cells found in COVID-19 patients. 

Through their independent analyses, a common theme emerged: Genes that are important for mitochondria to function are affected by the virus. Mitochondria are the energy generators for our cells, and that loss of energy results in cell death. It seems that the mitochondria may be a casualty of the viral infection — resulting in massive amounts of cell destruction within the lungs of COVID-19 patients.

“It’s possible that older people may be more susceptible because they are less flexible to changes in how cells maintain their energy production,” Schisler says.

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