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How Severe COVID-19 Can Tragically Lead to Lung Failure and Death

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SARS-CoV-2 and a sick woman. Leader lines label lungs, liver, heart and kidney

More than 3 million people around the world, now tragically including thousands every day in India, have lost their lives to severe COVID-19. Though incredible progress has been made in a little more than a year to develop effective vaccines, diagnostic tests, and treatments, there’s still much we don’t know about what precisely happens in the lungs and other parts of the body that leads to lethal outcomes.

Two recent studies in the journal Nature provide some of the most-detailed analyses yet about the effects on the human body of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 [1,2]. The research shows that in people with advanced infections, SARS-CoV-2 often unleashes a devastating series of host events in the lungs prior to death. These events include runaway inflammation and rampant tissue destruction that the lungs cannot repair.

Both studies were supported by NIH. One comes from a team led by Benjamin Izar, Columbia University, New York. The other involves a group led by Aviv Regev, now at Genentech, and formerly at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA.

Each team analyzed samples of essential tissues gathered from COVID-19 patients shortly after their deaths. Izar’s team set up a rapid autopsy program to collect and freeze samples within hours of death. He and his team performed single-cell RNA sequencing on about 116,000 cells from the lung tissue of 19 men and women. Similarly, Regev’s team developed an autopsy biobank that included 420 total samples from 11 organ systems, which were used to generate multiple single-cell atlases of tissues from the lung, kidney, liver, and heart.

Izar’s team found that the lungs of people who died of COVID-19 were filled with immune cells called macrophages. While macrophages normally help to fight an infectious virus, they seemed in this case to produce a vicious cycle of severe inflammation that further damaged lung tissue. The researchers also discovered that the macrophages produced high levels of IL-1β, a type of small inflammatory protein called a cytokine. This suggests that drugs to reduce effects of IL-1β might have promise to control lung inflammation in the sickest patients.

As a person clears and recovers from a typical respiratory infection, such as the flu, the lung repairs the damage. But in severe COVID-19, both studies suggest this isn’t always possible. Not only does SARS-CoV-2 destroy cells within air sacs, called alveoli, that are essential for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, but the unchecked inflammation apparently also impairs remaining cells from repairing the damage. In fact, the lungs’ regenerative cells are suspended in a kind of reparative limbo, unable to complete the last steps needed to replace healthy alveolar tissue.

In both studies, the lung tissue also contained an unusually large number of fibroblast cells. Izar’s team went a step further to show increased numbers of a specific type of pathological fibroblast, which likely drives the rapid lung scarring (pulmonary fibrosis) seen in severe COVID-19. The findings point to specific fibroblast proteins that may serve as drug targets to block deleterious effects.

Regev’s team also describes how the virus affects other parts of the body. One surprising discovery was there was scant evidence of direct SARS-CoV-2 infection in the liver, kidney, or heart tissue of the deceased. Yet, a closer look heart tissue revealed widespread damage, documenting that many different coronary cell types had altered their genetic programs. It’s still to be determined if that’s because the virus had already been cleared from the heart prior to death. Alternatively, the heart damage might not be caused directly by SARS-CoV-2, and may arise from secondary immune and/or metabolic disruptions.

Together, these two studies provide clearer pictures of the pathology in the most severe and lethal cases of COVID-19. The data from these cell atlases has been made freely available for other researchers around the world to explore and analyze. The hope is that these vast data sets, together with future analyses and studies of people who’ve tragically lost their lives to this pandemic, will improve our understanding of long-term complications in patients who’ve survived. They also will now serve as an important foundational resource for the development of promising therapies, with the goal of preventing future complications and deaths due to COVID-19.


[1] A molecular single-cell lung atlas of lethal COVID-19. Melms JC, Biermann J, Huang H, Wang Y, Nair A, Tagore S, Katsyv I, Rendeiro AF, Amin AD, Schapiro D, Frangieh CJ, Luoma AM, Filliol A, Fang Y, Ravichandran H, Clausi MG, Alba GA, Rogava M, Chen SW, Ho P, Montoro DT, Kornberg AE, Han AS, Bakhoum MF, Anandasabapathy N, Suárez-Fariñas M, Bakhoum SF, Bram Y, Borczuk A, Guo XV, Lefkowitch JH, Marboe C, Lagana SM, Del Portillo A, Zorn E, Markowitz GS, Schwabe RF, Schwartz RE, Elemento O, Saqi A, Hibshoosh H, Que J, Izar B. Nature. 2021 Apr 29.

[2] COVID-19 tissue atlases reveal SARS-CoV-2 pathology and cellular targets. Delorey TM, Ziegler CGK, Heimberg G, Normand R, Shalek AK, Villani AC, Rozenblatt-Rosen O, Regev A. et al. Nature. 2021 Apr 29.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Izar Lab (Columbia University, New York)

Aviv Regev (Genentech, South San Francisco, CA)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Missing Genes Point to Possible Drug Targets

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Human knockout projectEvery person’s genetic blueprint, or genome, is unique because of variations that occasionally occur in our DNA sequences. Most of those are passed on to us from our parents. But not all variations are inherited—each of us carries 60 to 100 “new mutations” that happened for the first time in us. Some of those variations can knock out the function of a gene in ways that lead to disease or other serious health problems, particularly in people unlucky enough to have two malfunctioning copies of the same gene. Recently, scientists have begun to identify rare individuals who have loss-of-function variations that actually seem to improve their health—extraordinary discoveries that may help us understand how genes work as well as yield promising new drug targets that may benefit everyone.

In a study published in the journal Nature, a team partially funded by NIH sequenced all 18,000 protein-coding genes in more than 10,500 adults living in Pakistan [1]. After finding that more than 17 percent of the participants had at least one gene completely “knocked out,” researchers could set about analyzing what consequences—good, bad, or neutral—those loss-of-function variations had on their health and well-being.

Fighting Parasitic Infections: Promise in Cyclic Peptides

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Cyclic peptide bound to iPGM

Caption: Cyclic peptide (middle) binds to iPGM (blue).
Credit: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NIH

When you think of the causes of infectious diseases, what first comes to mind are probably viruses and bacteria. But parasites are another important source of devastating infection, especially in the developing world. Now, NIH researchers and their collaborators have discovered a new kind of treatment that holds promise for fighting parasitic roundworms. A bonus of this result is that this same treatment might work also for certain deadly kinds of bacteria.

The researchers identified the potential new  therapeutic after testing more than a trillion small protein fragments, called cyclic peptides, to find one that could disable a vital enzyme in the disease-causing organisms, but leave similar enzymes in humans unscathed. Not only does this discovery raise hope for better treatments for many parasitic and bacterial diseases, it highlights the value of screening peptides in the search for ways to treat conditions that do not respond well—or have stopped responding—to more traditional chemical drug compounds.

Precision Medicine: Using Genomic Data to Predict Drug Side Effects and Benefits

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Gene Variant and Corornary Heart DiseasePeople with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk for heart attacks, stroke, and other forms of cardiovascular disease, and at an earlier age than other people. Several years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that drug developers take special care to show that potential drugs to treat diabetes don’t adversely affect the cardiovascular system [1]. The challenge in implementing that laudable exhortation is that a drug’s long-term health risks may not become clear until thousands or even tens of thousands of people have received it over the course of many years, sometimes even decades.

Now, a large international study, partly funded by NIH, offers some good news: proof-of-principle that “Big Data” tools can help to identify a drug’s potential side effects much earlier in the drug development process [2]. The study, which analyzed vast troves of genomic and clinical data collected over many years from more than 50,000 people with and without diabetes, indicates that anti-diabetes therapies that lower glucose by targeting the product of a specific gene, called GLP1R, are unlikely to boost the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, the evidence suggests that such drugs might even offer some protection against heart disease.

DNA Barcodes Interrogate Cancer Cells

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Blue and green blobs with one purple and red blob with a yellow and red striped box

Caption: A mix of cells collected from an abdominal cancer. The cancer cells (green) are positive for a cell surface cancer marker called EpCAM. The red cell is a normal mesothelial cell. The nuclei of all the cells are stained blue. Each of the five rows in the red, orange, and yellow “heat map” in the corner represents one cell, and the intensity of the color in each of the ~30 narrow columns reflects the abundance of a particular protein. It is apparent that there is a lot of heterogeneity in this collection of cancer cells.
Credit: Ralph Weissleder, Center for Systems Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

The proteins speckling the surface of a cancer cell reveal critical clues—the type of cancer cell and a menu of possible mutations that may have triggered the malignancy.  Since these proteins are exposed on the outside of the cell, they are also ideal targets for so-called precision cancer therapies (especially monoclonal antibodies), optimized for the particular individual. But in the past, to analyze and identify these different proteins, large samples of tissue have been needed. Typically, these are derived from surgical biopsies. But biopsies are expensive and invasive. Furthermore, they aren’t a practical option if you want to monitor the effects of a drug in a patient closely over time.

Using a minimally invasive method of cell sampling called fine needle aspiration, physicians can collect miniscule cell samples frequently, cheaply, and safely. But, until now, these tiny samples only provided enough material to analyze a handful of cell surface proteins. So, it comes as particularly good news that NIH-funded researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have developed a new technology that quickly identifies hundreds of these proteins simultaneously, using just a few of the patient’s cells [1]. The key to this new method is a clever adaptation of the familiar barcode.

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