COVID Strategy: Interferon

July 27, 2020

Have you ever heard of interferon?  Perhaps with cancer?  That's what this column is for.  I want to explain it in layman's terms so that you understand it.  And perhaps, understand how to benefit and turn your own interferon on.

Interferons are the proteins you make to fight back early against viruses and cancers.  You make three kinds of them.  Insufficient or inappropriately timed interferon production may explain why some folks get sick with COVID, and some folks don't.   This is all research on the fly as this particular COVID virus hasn't been studied intensively yet in mild cases.  But the carona viruses that make the common cold has been studied and comparisons can be made and some conclusions can be conjectured.  It's good to know this.

Type I interferons go by names like  IFN-α, β, ε, κ, and ω.  There are two other types, all produced by immune cells at different times of infections.  It's all in the timing and the amount of response that determines your body's ability to fight back against viruses and clear out the infected cells.   They can be released either by an infected cell, or by a cell that detects interferons being released by its neighbor and so joins in. That makes for a "feed-forward" system that accelerates the response.  The infected cell may be doomed but other responding cells may get their defenses up in time to limit the spread of the invader.  In particular, immune cells also get turned on and come to join the fray.  They can gobble up the virus, or inactivate it with antibodies.  All of this activity happens in a mad dash to contain the invasion.

Type I and II interferons are doing most of that immune response.  Type III stops viral replication inside the infected cells and shores up the integrity of membranes where the virus is coming in.  So, Type IIIs make your lungs better suited to getting infected.    It's I and IIs that are turning on the inflammatory cytokine storm that may overwhelm the host if it is badly timed.  

Now, viruses can fight back.  They usually carry their own genetic code for duplication, but also coating proteins and then, most importantly some proteins that neutralize host defenses. Carona viruses have about 10 different genes that either block interferon receptors or block their activation or even basic transcription.   Clever little devils.  But that's exactly what you would expect.  Evolutionary pressure on viruses forces that. They won't succeed and duplicate until they evolve and develop the genes to get around that.   So, we have to fight back.  Guess whether humans make a strong or weak response of interferons to the common cold carona virus!    Strong!    Guess what humans make to super dangerous carona viruses like SARS and MERS!  You got it.  Weak. 

There have been very tiny studies of patients in ICUs with COVID looking at the activated genes of sick folks.  Sure enough, a weak interferon response but an inappropriately abundant inflammatory response.  If you call in too many immune cells, you make "neutrophil extracellular traps" where you end up with tiny pus pockets, if you will, and cause complete dysregulation and blood clotting.  If you bring the hammer down of corticosteroid use, dexamethasone and heparin, you can stop that runaway "trapping" and clotting.  It's blunt instrument, but it appears to be working.  COVID survival is better with dexamethasone and heparin. 

So, who gets sick with COVID.  Old people.  And they don't make a sensible interferon response.  Nor do folks with cancer or diabetes.   Diabetes is an inflammatory disease in most cases where inflammation is already ramped up.  (See last week's blog)

There are some studies giving interferon as a drug.  In China, 3000 health care workers were given interferon nasal spray and not one got COVID. 

Can you get interferon?  Well, yes.  It is on the market but not widely used and few doctors are familiar with it.  And it's confusing as which do you use, when.  Type I? II?  III?   Might cost some $ 4000 dollars just for the drug, which insurance will not cover.  But a peptide called Thymosin A-1 might be similar in effect.  Cheaper and fewer side effects with the same outcome in one study comparing Thysomin 1 to Interferon in Chronic Hepatitis B infection.  Another peptide, VIP, also works to turn on interferon responses.  No one on VIP has developed COVID yet either.   Hmm.  There are options out there.   So does Vitamin D.  Selenium.  Melatonin

www. What will work for me.   Well, I'm taking Thymosin 1 myself.  Every day.  Will it work. Haven't a clue.  And the research on VIP is so intruiging, I suspect it may be another breaththrough drug when the RCT being conducted on COVID and VIP is completed.   But don't neglect the melatonin, Vitamin D, selenium.  They all work through the augmentation of interferons through your own equipment.  Equipment that has gotten rusty and beat up with aging.   Repair it a little. Go eat some Brazil nuts.

References:   Cell, MedRXiv, Medium, Antiviral Research, MedRxiv, Science Direct,  Jr Cell Physiology, Immunity and Ageing

Pop Quiz

1. What are interferons?     Answer: The proteins you make in response to invasion of "pathogens".

2.   Interferon response uses a "feed forward" system.  What does that mean?    Answer:  Infected cells turn on other cells and they all cycle upwards to contain the spread of viruses.  

3.   Why do some folks get severe COVID and some not?    Answer:  A robust early interferon response is characteristic of the common cold.  A weak response is seen in folks in ICUs with COVID.

4.   Who else has a weakened interferon response?    Answer:   Diabetics, cancer patients, overweight folks.  Anyone with inflammation already turned on.

5.   Can you raise your own interferon?    Answer.  Yup, yup, yup.  all it takes is some supplements, some Thymosin A1 or VIP.   Might be useful to consider.