The human genome has been called "nature's genetic blueprint for building a human being."
Each genome contains thousands of genes. A tiny fraction of those genes, about 1 percent, is coding genes. They are encoded with instructions for making proteins—a critical material used to construct cells, tissues and organs.
The other 99 percent is largely consisted of noncoding genes, also known as noncoding transcripts (NCTs). Once thought of as "junk with no known purpose," scientists now believe these still undefined genes do have an important role.
Hitendra Chand, a researcher in the Department of Immunology and Nano-Medicine at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM), is studying the role of NCTs in COVID-19 and associated lung diseases. The study is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
"Especially, in the wake of the worldwide struggle to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to take a deeper dive into the role of these lesser-known, but prevalent molecules, and determine their association with viral infections and immune responses, such as those triggered by the coronavirus," Chand said.
Chand’s lab has already identified a few, novel NCTs that can modulate responses in lung cells, and are associated with diseased lung conditions seen in COVID-19 patients.
"This could make NCTs excellent candidates as biological markers of inflammatory responses," said Charles Dimitroff, executive associate dean for research at HWCOM.
Early findings suggest the level of these noncoding genes could be indicators of how COVID-19 will progress—whether it will worsen or resolve.
This seminal research may also yield innovative intervention strategies and treatments for the chronic underlying conditions often seen in COVID-19 patients.