Predicting and preventing COVID-19

17 December 2020

How is it that some COVID-19 patients are affected much worse than others? Can we predict beforehand which of them will develop critical symptoms? MetaCovid, a diverse Dutch consortium of universities, academic hospitals and industrial partners is looking for the answers to these questions. They are now receiving a grant of 1 million euros from Top Sector Life Sciences & Health (Health~Holland).


'It’s problematic that we don’t know why patients react so differently to the virus and that we can’t predict this', says Exposome-NL researcher Thomas Hankemeier (Leiden University) and coordinator of the MetaCovid consortium. ‘We want to change that, so that we can provide more effective care.’ Fellow Exposome-NL researcher Roel Vermeulen (Utrecht University) and one of the collaborating partners, adds he is very proud that MetaCovid will make use of the infrastructure Exposome-NL is building, to develop treatment options to prevent serious health effects after a COVID-19 infection.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is a complex illness in which patients develop very diverging symptoms. Some patients do not or hardly notice that they have been infected, while others end up at the intensive care at high risk of dying. 


The consortium focuses on metabolomics, the field that studies the unique chemical fingerprints that specific metabolomic processes leave in our bodies. Think of amino acids, sugars or hormones. These fingerprints give a good image of a person’s current health. ‘The insights we gain from these fingerprints can be used, for example, for diagnostics or personalised medicine for diseases such as dementia, or heart or liver failure,’ explains Hankemeier. ‘Now we hope to use metabolomics to learn more about COVID-19.’

‘By combining the obtained profiles with computer models and organs-on-a-chip systems, we can accurately determine what is happening in the sick patients,’

Covid-19 profile

To predict the course of the disease, the scientists will determine the metabolic fingerprints in the blood of five to seven thousand COVID-19 patients. Such a fingerprint consists of more than a thousand metabolic products and lipids. It is therefore a direct reflection of all COVID-19 relevant processes that take place in the body. Think of the viral infection, its consequences, and the body's reaction to it.’

In this way, researchers can identify markers that predict which new patients will develop serious symptoms. ‘By combining the obtained profiles with computer models and organs-on-a-chip systems, we can accurately determine what is happening in the sick patients,’ says Hankemeier.

Better care

With the new collaboration project, the consortium partners hope to improve patient care for intensive care patients, the elderly and at-risk groups. With the models and fingerprints, they will also be able to test the effect of existing and new drugs or, for example, to optimise patients' diets and dietary supplements. ‘We are grateful for this unique opportunity to help COVID-19 patients through the use of metabolomics,’ concludes Hankemeier. ‘Our goal is to make metabolomics available to everyone in the Netherlands. This really is a milestone.'

The collaboration project is co-funded by the PPP Allowance made available by Health~Holland external link, Top Sector Life Sciences & Health, to stimulate public-private partnerships. The Dutch Life Sciences & Health (LSH) sector is one of nine “top sectors” in the Netherlands. The top sectors are designated by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy and are selected on their ability to contribute substantially to global societal challenges. 

MetaCovid is a collaboration of:

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