Artem Romanov, Ph.D.

What if we could improve treatment for severe cases of COVID-19 to save lives?

FUNDED BY: The generosity of various 2020 SPARK donors.

What was the goal of your SPARK project?

What if it would be possible to change the outcome of severe COVID-19 into a mild-case scenario, or avert long-term damage by changing the levels of certain molecules present in the blood?

The aim of this project was to apply state-of-the-art, high-resolution mass spectrometry to characterize the blood metabolic profile of patients with severe COVID-19, with a focus on vulnerable populations including cancer patients, patients with cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes or obesity, or with different ethnic backgrounds. I was also interested in seeing if there were any male-specific metabolites in the context of severe COVID-19, because men are more vulnerable to severe disease worldwide.

Did you face any challenges?

Yes. My main challenge was organizing the collaborative and analytical work with our off-site collaborator groups during a time when many people were working remotely. Sample preparation and data acquisition were also considerably slower and more time-consuming than I anticipated.
I would like to add that learning to properly pace the work over the past year has taught me a lot about deadlines.

SPARK project results:

My analysis showed that 27,875 metabolites were detectable in most of the samples (~95%), but only one metabolite was significantly associated
with developing severe COVID-19. In contrast, most metabolites were specifically associated with developing mild COVID-19. These results demonstrate that the presence or absence of specific blood-borne metabolites are predictive of mild COVID-19 disease, as opposed to predictive of severe COVID-19 disease. This finding was surprising and different from my original objective of identifying severe COVID-19 metabolites. However, this is also more promising and potentially exciting because mild COVID-19 metabolites can be further developed as biomarkers of mild COVID-19 disease or as immune-stimulatory therapeutic compounds to prevent severe COVID-19 disease.

Regarding sex-specific metabolites, I uncovered metabolites that were specifically associated with the development of either severe or mild disease in males. These results demonstrate that circulating metabolites are a good indicator of sex-specific differences in COVID-19 disease severity, and may be useful in developing sex-specific biomarkers of COVID-19 disease severity or therapies.

What’s next for this project?

Based upon these exciting findings, I would like to validate and extend the initial observations I made during the course of this SPARK project by 1) expanding my metabolite analysis to additional patient cohorts to see if they replicate in other COVID-19 patients; 2) identifying the chemical nature of the mild COVID-19 metabolites and the male-specific COVID-19 metabolites; 3) exploring the use of these metabolites as bio-marker predictors or modulators of COVID-19 disease outcomes. I am applying for R21 or R00/R99 funding from the NIH/NIAID, and coordinating with my PI, Dr. Sonia Sharma, to apply for a collaborative R01 grant from the NIH/NIAID. Additional patient cohorts can be obtained from key collaborations between myself, Dr. Sharma, and Dr. Sujan Shresta at LJI.

What’s next for Artem?

Ultimately, I hope to contribute to the development of new translational approaches in the field of immune-metabolism and immune-therapy. Whether that will be in academia or industry doesn’t matter so much to me as long as I can keep working on developing new metabolite-based treatments for cancer and other immune diseases, including COVID-19. I feel lucky that during my time as a graduate student and as a postdoc there has been a true “renaissance” for understanding how metabolism and metabolites interface with immune diseases.