Ancient Curse: For some people, a Neanderthal gene could be complicating Covid-19 in a radical way

By: |
December 21, 2020 6:30 AM

The authors of the latest DPP4 study looked at the Neanderthal DPP4 gene in those who has severe Covid-19, and found that this was reported in a ‘higher frequency’ in the genomes of nearly 8,000 people who had been hospitalised with a severe manifestation.

With just one copy of the Neanderthal gene, the risk of severe Covid-19 was twice that of a person lacking the gene entirely; if both the copies of the gene in an individual were the Neanderthal variant, the risk shot up by four times.

Call it an ancestral curse. A gene variant in certain people, from Neanderthal ancestry, may significantly increase their risk of severe Covid-19. A report in Science, on a preprint in bioRxiv, talks about the enzyme dipeptidyl peptidase (DPP4), which has been known to facilitate entry of the coronavirus that causes the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome; the preprint suggests that the enzyme could also be responsible for SARS CoV-2 invading our cells, along with the ACE-2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) receptor.

The role of DPP4 has been contested—Chinese researchers had, in June, reported that DPP4 could be a likely binding partner for SARS CoV-2’s spike proteins, but another group of researchers had earlier maintained that the virus didn’t bind with the enzyme in cell-line studies. The Neanderthal gene for DPP4 has certain variations with that which codes for the enzyme in later Homo sapiens. The authors of the latest DPP4 study looked at the Neanderthal DPP4 gene in those who has severe Covid-19, and found that this was reported in a ‘higher frequency’ in the genomes of nearly 8,000 people who had been hospitalised with a severe manifestation. With just one copy of the Neanderthal gene, the risk of severe Covid-19 was twice that of a person lacking the gene entirely; if both the copies of the gene in an individual were the Neanderthal variant, the risk shot up by four times. This shows that the importance of evolutionary genetics in disease study, especially for Covid-19, can’t be highlighted enough. It also could mean an opportunity for therapeutic intervention through drugs that could target Neanderthal DPP4.

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