They found that a “relatively unexamined gene called LZTFL1” appears to prevent cells in the airways and lungs from responding properly to the virus, which can lead to respiratory failure and death.
Sixty percent of people of South Asian descent carry the “high-risk genetic signal,” partly explaining the excessive deaths seen in some British communities, researchers said.
It is found in about 15% of people of European descent, while for people of Afro-Caribbean descent it is 2%.
Importantly, those who wear it respond normally to vaccines because it does not affect the immune system.
Professor James Davies, who co-led the study, said the increased risk “should be offset” by vaccination.
Researchers also hope drugs and other therapies might help the lungs fight COVID-19[feminine[feminine, opening up the prospect of personalized treatments.
Professor Davies, who worked in intensive care during the coronavirus pandemic, said the discovery shows that “how the lung responds to infection is critical.”
This is an important step forward, he added, because “most of the treatment (so far) has focused on changing the way the immune system responds to the virus.”
An “artificial intelligence algorithm” was used to analyze large amounts of genetic data from “hundreds of cell types from all parts of the body”.
Then, using a new “very precise” technique, the scientists were able to “zoom in on DNA”.
Dr Damien Downes, who led the laboratory work of the Hughes Research Group, said: “Surprisingly, since several other genes were suspected, the data showed that a relatively little studied gene called LZTFL1 causes the effect. “
Professor Jim Hughes, professor of gene regulation, also co-led the study and said it was made more difficult because they were looking at an ‘indirect switching effect’.
He added: “We have found that the increased risk is not due to a difference in the coding of a gene for a protein, but to a difference in the DNA that makes it possible to activate a gene.
“It is much more difficult to detect the gene that is affected by this type of indirect switching effect. “
The study is published in the journal Nature Genetics.