11:30 p.m.: Dr. Mercedes Rincon’s home office, Aurora

Jay Bouchard, 5280 – 5280.com

For nearly three decades, Dr. Mercedes Rincon has studied a molecule so obscure and unremarkable that even her colleagues tease her about it.

The Spanish-born professor in the University of Colorado’s Department of Immunology and Microbiology was doing postdoctoral work at Yale when she stumbled upon an article about interleukin-6, or IL-6.

She became fascinated with the molecule commonly produced in inflammation, which is familiar to arthritis and cancer researchers searching for treatments.

When the 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 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,” she cautioned. “We have to be careful. We need more data.”

With the clock approaching midnight, a long day coming to a close, Rincon got to work crafting a grant proposal. She wants the University of Colorado to be at the forefront of this research.

With a little funding and a little luck, Rincon and her obscure molecule might just provide Coloradans — and the rest of the world — with a reason to hope.