By the time Dr. Mercedes Rincon sits down at her computer at 11:30 p.m., she’s already counseled her 93-year-old father, who lives alone in Madrid, about how to stay safe and stave off loneliness amidst the lockdown. She’s already met remotely with graduate students and lab techs overseeing a number of projects at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. And she’s already participated in a virtual conference about arthritis research.

Her real work, though, has not yet begun.

Rincon, a Spanish-born professor in CU’s Department of Immunology and Microbiology, has been studying a relatively obscure molecule known as interleukin-6 (IL-6) since 1994. Typically the concern of arthritis and cancer researchers, IL-6—which is commonly produced in inflammation—has never been the sexiest subject. During the nearly 30 years she’s been studying it, Rincon’s endured plenty of ribbing from colleagues about the somewhat unimpressive molecule.

Nobody is laughing now, though.

Dr. Mercedes Rincon
Dr. Mercedes Rincon is a professor of Immunology & Microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mercedes Rincon

When the novel coronavirus began wreaking havoc on human lungs, Rincon saw a familiar microscopic face in the mix: IL-6 is consistently present in the lungs of the most severely affected patients. Whether IL-6 is a cause or a consequence of the novel coronavirus, Rincon isn’t sure, but she hypothesizes that drugs like tocilizumab (traditionally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis), could possibly target IL-6 and prevent it from producing more damaging inflammatory molecules. Early results from studies in China, as well as research in Europe and at the University of Vermont, show some promise.

“We can’t conclude anything yet,” Rincon cautions. “We have to be careful. We need more data.”

Which is why she ‘s working into the small hours of Friday morning. Rincon wants the University of Colorado to be at the forefront of this research, so she spends the night writing a grant proposal. With a little funding and a little luck, Rincon and her ridiculed molecule might just provide Coloradans—and the rest of the world—with a reason to hope.

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Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.