Duke researchers find out why women may fight off COVID better than men

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Friday, April 16, 2021
Why women may fight off COVID better than men, Duke study explains
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Researchers at Duke may have discovered why women are better equipped to fight COVID-19 than men simply due to evolution.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- New findings from Duke researchers shed new light on why women are better equipped to fight off COVID-19 compared to men.

The novel coronavirus almost killed Cory McLamb last fall. He was only days out of a coma when he spoke to ABC11 in September. He was on a ventilator when doctors at WakeMed Cary gave him a one-in-four chance of survival.

"It's day by day. There's good days and bad days," McLamb said, Thursday, finally recovered and back at home in Cary.

But the worst days of COVID for McLamb was what the infection was doing to his lungs.

"I didn't take it lightly. I was careful. I cleaned. I wiped. I wore a mask. I did all these things. And I still almost died," Corey McLamb told ABC11.

"I had noticed that my breathing had become a little more difficult. But I didn't notice how bad it had become," he said. "it was a tightening of my chest. And it was really hard to formulate words and get the words out."

A team of scientists at Duke University School of Medicine may have helped find the answer to why women may be better at fighting off COVID than men like McLamb.

Last spring, with the pandemic putting a halt to Dr. Daniel Saban's eye research, he put his powerful ophthalmology lab tools to work studying blood samples shared by COVID patients.

"We were looking for patterns. We didn't have a specific objective in mind. We were doing what's called a data-driven approach," Saban said.

His data found women produce abundantly more of a special immune cell called mucosal-associated invariant T cells, or MAIT cells. They're white blood cells that boost the body's immune defense in mucosal organs like the lungs -- where they attack the COVID virus.

All of us have MAIT cells. Women have significantly more. And the ones in men are weaker.

"We are opening the box of now understanding this virus and how are immune cells deal with it," Saban said.

As to why women combat COVID better, Saban says it may simply be evolution -- the same way women are more susceptible to certain auto-immune disorders like multiple sclerosis or lupus; and men more susceptible to cancer.

The next step is using Duke's research to develop cell therapies or even a pill to boost MAIT cells, increasing their numbers for people that need it.