Two researchers take blood samples out of a freezer at a laboratory
University Medicine Zurich (UMZH)

COVID-19:
How a biomarker can predict the progression

Serious cases of COVID-19 can be discovered at an early stage. Burkhard Becher and his research team have identified the first biomarker that enables reliable predictions to be made. This provides important evidence for physicians. On the day when a patient comes into hospital, they can find out whether this person will become seriously ill or whether they will suffer from a mild case of the disease and will be able to return home quickly.

Status: Research in progress
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Professor Burkhard Becher
Institute of Experimental
Immunology at the
University of Zurich
+41 44 635 37 03
E-Mail

UMZH institutions

University of Zurich
University Hospital Zurich
University Children’s Hospital Zurich

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And suddenly the coronavirus arrived

In the laboratory wing of building Y44 on the Irchel campus of the University of Zurich, the mood was cheerful. There was a sense of relief among the members of the team headed by Professor Burkhard Becher at the Institute of Experimental Immunology. The group had been under immense pressure during the preceding months, working almost day and night. Now the researchers at the University of Zurich have discovered that all their hard work has more than paid off. In a very short period of time, they have made a major contribution to combating COVID-19 and their achievement is of international importance.

Together with researchers from Tübingen, Toulouse, and Nantes, the team identified a biomarker in the blood of COVID-19 patients that allows the progression of the disease to be predicted. The doctors can already tell on the patient’s first day in hospital whether the person will become seriously ill and need intensive care or whether they will have a mild case of the disease and will soon be able to return home.

Stefanie Kreutmair is heading the research project. She is a specialist in internal medicine, hematology, and oncology and moved to Zurich in February 2020 to start carrying out research at the University of Zurich. «Only one month later it all kicked off and the coronavirus arrived almost overnight,» she recalls. Before her move, she worked as a physician at the university hospital in Freiburg im Breisgau. She heard from her former colleagues that the emergency rooms and ICUs were quickly filling up. «People were talking about a shortage of doctors and I wondered whether I wouldn’t be more useful in the hospital than I was here.» But when she and her team were approached about the biomarker project, she was immediately fully committed to it. «I’m pleased that I can put my heart and soul into the research project and do something useful to combat the pandemic.»

A computer in a research lab

Where everything began at the start of 2020.

From blood cancer to lung infections

Other ongoing projects in the research group led by Professor Burkhard Becher, for example concerning blood cancer, were initially put on hold. In the months that followed, the team headed by Stefanie Kreutmair focused entirely on the biomarkers and COVID-19. They looked for partner institutions and held joint discussions to determine the goal of the project. Kreutmair was able to contribute her experience as a physician. Because of the system of rotations at the hospital, she had worked in both the emergency room and the intensive care unit.

It was clear to everyone involved that if they succeeded in developing a simple measurement method for predicting how seriously ill a patient would become, this would represent a major breakthrough. Targeted drug treatments could be started early and transfers to the ICU planned more effectively. The researchers began studying the blood of COVID-19 patients at different stages in the progression of the disease. They compared it with the blood of patients suffering from serious lung infections where the pathogen was not the coronavirus. They analyzed the complete immune response of the patients, described it, and searched for differences. Among other things, they succeeded in identifying a specific type of white blood cell: the biomarker that is characteristic of the immune response to COVID-19.

Huge datasets lead to the breakthrough

The process that led to the identification of this biomarker is highly complex and the datasets produced are enormous. As Stefanie Kreutmair explains: «Now the method needs to be validated and it must also undergo testing in large-scale clinical trials. In the future, it could be widely used in clinical practice.»

The study is available from this link.

Burkhard Becher and his team sitting in the break room of their research lab

Burkhard Becher with his team in the break room of the research lab on the Irchel Campus In Zurich (from left to right: Burkhard Becher, Donatella De Feo, Susanne Unger, Stefanie Kreutmair, Nicolás Gonzalo Núñez, Chiara Alberti, Ekaterina Friebel, Sinduya Krishnarajah. Not present: Florian Ingelfinger, Manuel Kauffmann).

In conversation with…

Listen

Burkhard Becher (Audio file in German)

«We have succeeded in identifying the targets for treatment»

Professor Burkhard Becher is a professor at the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich.

Burkhard Becher
7:26

Stefanie Kreutmair (Audio file in German)

«I wanted to contribute to the fight against the pandemic»

Dr. Stefanie Kreutmair is a specialist in internal medicine, hematology, and oncology at University Hospital Zurich and is heading the research project at the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich.

Stefanie Kreutmair
5:26

Chiara Alberti (Audio file in English)

«Our results show how important it is to tailor the treatment to each individual patient»

Dr. Chiara Alberti is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich.

Chiara Alberti
4:49

Nico Nunez (Audio file in English)

«We have worked with patient samples from various European countries»

Dr. Nico Nunez is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich.

Nico Nunez
3:52

Susanne Unger (Audio file in German)

«We wanted to be able to predict serious cases of COVID-19 from blood samples»

Dr. Susanne Unger is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich.

Susanne Unger
4:11
From research to clinical practice

Service

University Hospital Zurich: Coronavirus testing and vaccination
University Children’s Hospital Zurich: Coronavirus testing and COVID-19 vaccination

Important terms explained in brief

Glossary

Biomarkers:
These are measurable parameters of biological processes that can be used for prognostic or diagnostic purposes and therefore function as indicators of diseases, for example. They are characteristic biological features that can be measured objectively and can indicate a normal biological process or a disease in the body. Biomarkers can be cells, genes, gene products, or specific molecules, such as enzymes or hormones.

SARS-CoV-2:
The coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause various diseases. Seven different coronaviruses have so far been identified in humans. The current coronavirus is officially known as SARS-CoV-2. The illness caused by a SARS-CoV-2 infection is called COVID-19.

Hematology:
The study of blood and its components..

Who is co-financing this project? (in CHF millions)

The LOOP Zurich - Medical Research Center
Vontobel Stiftung
The project funding lasts from 2020 to 2022

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