Evaluating the effects of cardiometabolic exposures on circulating proteins which may contribute to severe SARS-CoV-2

Tom G Richardson*, Si Fang, Ruth E Mitchell, Michael V Holmes, George Davey Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Developing insight into the pathogenesis of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is of critical importance to overcome the global pandemic caused by coronavirus disease 2019 (covid-19). In this study, we have applied Mendelian randomization (MR) to systematically evaluate the effect of 10 cardiometabolic risk factors and genetic liability to lifetime smoking on 97 circulating host proteins postulated to either interact or contribute to the maladaptive host response of SARS-CoV-2.

We applied the inverse variance weighted (IVW) approach and several robust MR methods in a two-sample setting to systemically estimate the genetically predicted effect of each risk factor in turn on levels of each circulating protein. Multivariable MR was conducted to simultaneously evaluate the effects of multiple risk factors on the same protein. We also applied MR using cis-regulatory variants at the genomic location responsible for encoding these proteins to estimate whether their circulating levels may influence severe SARS-CoV-2.

In total, we identified evidence supporting 105 effects between risk factors and circulating proteins which were robust to multiple testing corrections and sensitivity analyses. For example, body mass index provided evidence of an effect on 23 circulating proteins with a variety of functions, such as inflammatory markers c-reactive protein (IVW Beta=0.34 per standard deviation change, 95% CI=0.26 to 0.41, P=2.19x10-16) and interleukin-1 receptor antagonist (IVW Beta=0.23, 95% CI=0.17 to 0.30, P=9.04x10-12). Further analyses using multivariable MR provided evidence that the effect of BMI on lowering immunoglobulin G, an antibody class involved in protection from infection, is substantially mediated by raised triglycerides levels (IVW Beta=-0.18, 95% CI=-0.25 to -0.12, P=2.32x10-08, proportion mediated=44.1%). The strongest evidence that any of the circulating proteins highlighted by our initial analysis influence severe SARS-CoV-2 was identified for soluble glycoprotein 130 (odds ratio=1.81, 95% CI=1.25 to 2.62, P=0.002), a signal transductor for interleukin-6 type cytokines which are involved in inflammatory response. However, based on current case samples for severe SARS-CoV-2 we were unable to replicate findings in independent samples.

Our findings highlight several key proteins which are influenced by established exposures for disease. Future research to determine whether these circulating proteins mediate environmental effects onto risk of SARS-CoV-2 are warranted to help elucidate therapeutic strategies for severe covid-19 disease.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103228
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 3 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
TGR, SF, REM and GDS work at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at at the University of Bristol (MC_UU_00011/1). GDS conducts research at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at the University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health. SF is supported by a Wellcome Trust PhD studentship in Molecular, Genetic and Lifecourse Epidemiology [108902/Z/15/Z]. TGR is a UKRI Innovation Research Fellow (MR/S003886/1). MVH works in a unit that receives funding from the UK Medical Research Council and is supported by a British Heart Foundation Intermediate Clinical Research Fellowship (FS/18/23/33512) and the National Institute for Health Research Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.

Funding Information:
The Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the British Heart Foundation and UK Research and Innovation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors

Structured keywords

  • Covid19


  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Covid19
  • Mendelian randomization
  • cardiometabolic risk factors
  • circulating proteins


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