Changes to the sebum lipidome upon COVID-19 infection observed via rapid sampling from the skin

Matt Spick, Katherine Longman, Cecile Frampas, Holly Lewis, Catia Costa, Deborah Dunn Walters, Alex Stewart, Michael Wilde, Danni Greener, George Evetts, Drupad Trivedi, Perdita Barran, Andy Pitt, Melanie Bailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented demand for testing - for diagnosis and prognosis - as well as for investigation into the impact of the disease on the host metabolism. Sebum sampling has the potential to support both needs by looking at what the virus does to us, rather than looking for the virus itself. Methods: In this pilot study, sebum samples were collected from 67 hospitalised patients (30 COVID-19 positive and 37 COVID-19 negative) by gauze swab. Lipidomics analysis was carried out using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, identifying 998 reproducible features. Univariate and multivariate statistical analyses were applied to the resulting feature set. Findings: Lipid levels were depressed in COVID-19 positive participants, indicative of dyslipidemia; p-values of 0·022 and 0·015 were obtained for triglycerides and ceramides respectively, with effect sizes of 0·44 and 0·57. Partial Least Squares-Discriminant Analysis showed separation of COVID-19 positive and negative participants with sensitivity of 57% and specificity of 68%, improving to 79% and 83% respectively when controlled for confounding comorbidities. Interpretation: COVID-19 dysregulates many areas of metabolism; in this work we show that the skin lipidome can be added to the list. Given that samples can be provided quickly and painlessly, we conclude that sebum is worthy of future consideration for clinical sampling. Funding: The authors acknowledge funding from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account for sample collection and processing, as well as EPSRC Fellowship Funding EP/R031118/1, the University of Surrey and BBSRC BB/T002212/1. Mass Spectrometry was funded under EP/P001440/1.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100786
Pages (from-to)100786
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021


  • COVID-19 diagnostics
  • Lipidomics
  • Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry
  • Multi-variate analysis
  • Sebomics


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