January 20, 2022

Diabetes & COVID: Finding Answers Behind the Deadly Duo

Diabetes Care recently published a groundbreaking discovery by Michigan Medicine researchers, including six NeuroNetwork faculty, of a protein that is likely behind the higher risk of death and complications from COVID-19 for diabetes patients.

The Michigan Medicine team, led by Drs. Salim Hayek, Medical Director of the Frankel Cardiovascular Center Clinics, and Rodica Pop-Busui, Larry D. Soderquist Professor of Diabetes, investigated why patients with diabetes faced more severe outcomes if they contract COVID-19.

It is already known that people with diabetes have chronic inflammation. One factor in this immune response is soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (suPAR) – a protein produced by cells also known to be involved in COVID-19 and its complications.  Investigators then leveraged the work of Medicine COVID-19 Cohort (M2C2) and the International Study of Inflammation in COVID-19 (ISIC) – unique resources that have made major contributions to the study of COVID-19 – to look deeper. 

Dr. Salim Hayek, faculty member of the NeuroNetwork for Emerging Therapies
Dr. Salim Hayek

“What we found was remarkable,” Dr. Hayek explained of their findings published in Diabetes Care. “Patients with diabetes mellitus and COVID-19 had much higher levels of suPAR compared to those without diabetes, and suPAR levels accounted for most, if not all, the risk of bad outcomes that are attributed to diabetes mellitus.”

“What was also quite interesting was that high glucose levels, while linked to worse outcomes, was NOT strongly related to inflammation – meaning that high glucose levels impact outcomes through a different mechanism yet to be studied.”

Making this a particularly promising discovery is the fact that anti-suPAR therapies are already in development, which may lead to a game-changer in treating inflammation in patients with diabetes, both with and without COVID-19.