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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.

References:

[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.

Links:

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


Boldly Going Where No Science Has Gone Before

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It was an amazing experience to touch base once again with Kate Rubins, a NASA astronaut aboard the International Space Station. Connecting via live downlink on March 26, 2021, we discussed how space-based research can enable valuable biomedical advances on our planet. For example, over the past five years, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences has funded a series of tissue chip payloads that have launched to the orbiting laboratory. Rubins, who is a biologist and infectious disease expert, has facilitated three of these projects: Cardinal Heart from Stanford University, Electrical Stimulation of Human Myocytes in Microgravity from the University of Florida, and Cartilage-Bone-Synovium from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Can Blood Thinners Keep Moderately Ill COVID-19 Patients Out of the ICU?

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Blood Clot
Credit: iStock

One of many troubling complications of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is its ability to trigger the formation of multiple blood clots, most often in older people but sometimes in younger ones, too. It raises the question of whether and when more aggressive blood thinning treatments might improve outcomes for people hospitalized for COVID-19.

The answer to this question is desperately needed to help guide clinical practice. So, I’m happy to report interim results of three large clinical trials spanning four continents and more than 300 hospitals that are beginning to provide critical evidence on this very question [1]. While it will take time to reach a solid consensus, the findings based on more than 1,000 moderately ill patients suggest that full doses of blood thinners are safe and can help to keep folks hospitalized with COVID-19 from becoming more severely ill and requiring some form of organ support.

The results that are in so far suggest that individuals hospitalized, but not severely ill, with COVID-19 who received a full intravenous dose of the common blood thinner heparin were less likely to need vital organ support, including mechanical ventilation, compared to those who received the lower “prophylactic” subcutaneous dose. It’s important to note that these findings are in contrast to results announced last month indicating that routine use of a full dose of blood thinner for patients already critically ill and in the ICU wasn’t beneficial and may even have been harmful in some cases [2]. This is a compelling example of how critical it is to stratify patients with different severity in clinical trials—what might help one subgroup might be of no benefit, or even harmful, in another.

More study is clearly needed to sort out all the details about when more aggressive blood thinning treatment is warranted. Trial investigators are now working to make the full results available to help inform a doctor’s decisions about how to best to treat their patients hospitalized with COVID-19. It’s worth noting that these trials are overseen by independent review boards, which routinely evaluate the data and are composed of experts in ethics, biostatistics, clinical trials, and blood clotting disorders.

These clinical trials were made possible in part by the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) public-private partnership and its ACTIV-4 Antithrombotics trials—along with similar initiatives in Canada, Australia, and the European Union. The ACTIV-4 trials are overseen by the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood institute and funded by Operation Warp Speed.

This ACTIV-4 trial is one of three Phase 3 clinical trials evaluating the safety and effectiveness of blood thinners for patients with COVID-19 [3]. Another ongoing trial is investigating whether blood thinners are beneficial for newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients who do not require hospitalization. There are also plans to explore the use of blood thinners for patients after they’ve been discharged from the hospital following a diagnosis of moderate to severe COVID-19 and to establish more precise methods for identifying which patients with COVID-19 are most at risk for developing life-threatening blood clots.

Meanwhile, research teams are exploring other potentially promising ways to repurpose existing therapeutics and improve COVID-19 outcomes. In fact, the very day that these latest findings on blood thinners were announced, another group at The Montreal Heart Institute, Canada, announced preliminary results of the international COLCORONA trial, testing the use of colchicine—an anti-inflammatory drug widely used to treat gout and other conditions—for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 [4].

Their early findings in treating patients just after a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 suggest that colchicine might reduce the risk of death or hospitalization compared to patients given a placebo. In the more than 4,100 individuals with a proven diagnosis of COVID-19, colchicine significantly reduced hospitalizations by 25 percent, the need for mechanical ventilation by 50 percent, and deaths by 44 percent. Still, the actual numbers of individuals represented by these percentages was small.

Time will tell whether and for which patients colchicine and blood thinners prove most useful in treating COVID-19. For those answers, we’ll have to await the analysis of more data. But the early findings on both treatment strategies come as a welcome reminder that we continue to make progress each day on such critical questions about which existing treatments can be put to work to improve outcomes for people with COVID-19. Together with our efforts to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, finding better ways to treat those who do get sick and prevent some of the worst outcomes will help us finally put this terrible pandemic behind us.

References:

[1] Full-dose blood thinners decreased need for life support and improved outcome in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. January 22, 2021.

[2] NIH ACTIV trial of blood thinners pauses enrollment of critically ill COVID-19 patients. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. December 22, 2020.

[3] NIH ACTIV initiative launches adaptive clinical trials of blood-clotting treatments for COVID-19. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. September 10, 2020.

[4] Colchicine reduces the risk of COVID-19-related complications. The Montreal Heart Institute. January 22, 2021.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


COVID-19 Can Damage Hearts of Some College Athletes

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American football Player
Credit: iStock/Serega

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the news lately about whether to pause or resume college athletics during the pandemic. One of the sticking points has been uncertainty about how to monitor the health of student athletes who test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As a result, college medical staff don’t always know when to tell athletes that they’ve fully recovered and it’s safe to start training again.

The lack of evidence owes to two factors. Though it may not seem like it, this terrible coronavirus has been around for less than a year, and that’s provided little time to conduct the needed studies with young student athletes. But that’s starting to change. An interesting new study in the journal JAMA Cardiology provides valuable and rather worrisome early data from COVID-positive student athletes evaluated for an inflammation of the heart called myocarditis, a well-known complication [1].

Saurabh Rajpal and his colleagues at the Ohio State University, Columbus, used cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize the hearts of 26 male and female student athletes. They participated in a range of sports, including football, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and track. All of the athletes were referred to the university’s sports medicine clinic this past summer after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. All had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

Even so, the MRI scans, taken 11-53 days after completion of quarantine, showed four of the student athletes (all males) had swelling and tissue damage to their hearts consistent with myocarditis. Although myocarditis often resolves on its own over time, severe cases can compromise the heart muscle’s ability to beat. That can lead to heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, and even sudden death in competitive athletes with normal heart function [2].

The investigators also looked for more subtle findings of cardiac injury in these athletes, using a contrast agent called gadolinium and measuring its time to appear in the cardiac muscle during the study. Eight of the 26 athletes (31 percent) had late gadolinium enhancement, suggestive of prior myocardial injury.

Even though it’s a small study, these results certainly raise concerns. They add more evidence to a prior study, published by a German group, that suggested subtle cardiac consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection may be common in adults [3].

Rajpal and his colleagues will continue to follow the athletes in their study for several more months. The researchers will keep an eye out for other lingering symptoms of COVID-19, generate more cardiac MRI data, and perform exercise testing.

As this study shows, we still have a lot to learn about the long-term consequences of COVID-19, which can take people on different paths to recovery. For athletes, that path is the challenge to return to top physical shape and feel ready to compete at a high level. But getting back in uniform must also be done safely to minimize any risks to an athlete’s long-term health and wellbeing. The more science-based evidence that’s available, the more prepared athletes at large and small colleges will be to compete safely in this challenging time.

References:

[1] Cardiovascular magnetic resonance findings in competitive athletes recovering from COVID-19 infection. Rajpal S, Tong MS, Borchers J, et al. JAMA Cardiol. 2020 September 11. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Eligibility and disqualification recommendations for competitive athletes with cardiovascular abnormalities: Task Force 3: Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy and other cardiomyopathies, and myocarditis. Maron BJ, Udelson JE, Bonow RO, et al. Circulation. 2015;132(22):e273-e280.

[3] Outcomes of cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging in patients recently recovered from Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Puntmann VO, Carej ML, Wieters I. JAMA Cardiol. 2020 Jul 27:e203557. [Published online ahead of print.]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Heart Inflammation (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Saurabh Rajpal (Ohio State College of Medicine, Columbus)


Study Ties COVID-19-Related Syndrome in Kids to Altered Immune System

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Very sick child
Credit: iStock/Sasiistock

Most children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop only a mild illness. But, days or weeks later, a small percentage of kids go on to develop a puzzling syndrome known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). This severe inflammation of organs and tissues can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, and eyes.

Thankfully, most kids with MIS-C respond to treatment and make rapid recoveries. But, tragically, MIS-C can sometimes be fatal.

With COVID-19 cases in children having increased by 21 percent in the United States since early August [2], NIH and others are continuing to work hard on getting a handle on this poorly understood complication. Many think that MIS-C isn’t a direct result of the virus, but seems more likely to be due to an intense autoimmune response. Indeed, a recent study in Nature Medicine [1] offers some of the first evidence that MIS-C is connected to specific changes in the immune system that, for reasons that remain mysterious, sometimes follow COVID-19.

These findings come from Shane Tibby, a researcher at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London. United Kingdom; Manu Shankar-Hari, a scientist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London; and colleagues. The researchers enlisted 25 children, ages 7 to 14, who developed MIS-C in connection with COVID-19. In search of clues, they examined blood samples collected from the children during different stages of their care, starting when they were most ill through recovery and follow-up. They then compared the samples to those of healthy children of the same ages.

What they found was a complex array of immune disruptions. The children had increased levels of various inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, alongside raised levels of other markers suggesting tissue damage—such as troponin, which indicates heart muscle injury.

The neutrophils, monocytes, and other white blood cells that rapidly respond to infections were activated as expected. But the levels of certain white blood cells called T lymphocytes were paradoxically reduced. Interestingly, despite the low overall numbers of T lymphocytes, particular subsets of them appeared activated as though fighting an infection. While the children recovered, those differences gradually disappeared as the immune system returned to normal.

It has been noted that MIS-C bears some resemblance to an inflammatory condition known as Kawasaki disease, which also primarily affects children. While there are similarities, this new work shows that MIS-C is a distinct illness associated with COVID-19. In fact, only two children in the study met the full criteria for Kawasaki disease based on the clinical features and symptoms of their illness.

Another recent study from the United Kingdom, reported several new symptoms of MIS-C [3]. They include headaches, tiredness, muscle aches, and sore throat. Researchers also determined that the number of platelets was much lower in the blood of children with MIS-C than in those without the condition. They proposed that evaluating a child’s symptoms along with his or her platelet level could help to diagnose MIS-C.

It will now be important to learn much more about the precise mechanisms underlying these observed changes in the immune system and how best to treat or prevent them. In support of this effort, NIH recently announced $20 million in research funding dedicated to the development of approaches that identify children at high risk for developing MIS-C [4].

The hope is that this new NIH effort, along with other continued efforts around the world, will elucidate the factors influencing the likelihood that a child with COVID-19 will develop MIS-C. Such insights are essential to allow doctors to intervene as early as possible and improve outcomes for this potentially serious condition.

References:

[1] Peripheral immunophenotypes in children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Carter MJ, Fish M, Jennings A, Doores KJ, Wellman P, Seow J, Acors S, Graham C, Timms E, Kenny J, Neil S, Malim MH, Tibby SM, Shankar-Hari M. Nat Med. 2020 Aug 18.

[2] Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. August 24, 2020.

[3] Clinical characteristics of children and young people admitted to hospital with covid-19 in United Kingdom: prospective multicentre observational cohort study. Swann OV, Holden KA, Turtle L, Harrison EW, Docherty AB, Semple MG, et al. Br Med J. 2020 Aug 17.

[4] NIH-funded project seeks to identify children at risk for MIS-C. NIH. August 7, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Kawasaki Disease (Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Shane Tibby (Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London)

Manu Shankar-Hari (King’s College, London)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Office of the Director; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities; Fogarty International Center


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