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Rogue Antibodies and Gene Mutations Explain Some Cases of Severe COVID-19

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SARS-CoV-2
Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a dying cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

One of the many perplexing issues with COVID-19 is that it affects people so differently. That has researchers trying to explain why some folks bounce right back from the virus, or don’t even know they have it—while others become critically ill. Now, two NIH-funded studies suggest that one reason some otherwise healthy people become gravely ill may be previously unknown trouble spots in their immune systems, which hamper their ability to fight the virus.

According to the new findings in hundreds of racially diverse people with life-threatening COVID-19, a small percentage of people who suffer the most severe symptoms carry rare mutations in genes that disrupt their antiviral defenses. Another 10 percent with severe COVID-19 produce rogue “auto-antibodies,” which misguidedly disable a part of the immune system instead of attacking the virus.

Either way, the outcome is the same: the body has trouble fending off SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The biological reason is there’s not enough of an assortment of signaling proteins, called type I interferons, that are crucial to detecting dangerous viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and sounding the alarm to prevent serious illness.

The research was led by Jean-Laurent Casanova, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The Rockefeller University, New York; and the Imagine Institute, Necker Hospital, Paris. Casanova and his team began enrolling people with COVID-19 last February, with a particular interest in young adults battling severe illness. They were curious whether inherent weaknesses in their immune systems might explain their surprising vulnerability to the virus despite being otherwise young and healthy. Based on earlier findings in other infectious illnesses, they were especially interested in a set of 13 genes involved in interferon-driven immunity.

In their first study, published in the journal Science, researchers compared this set of genes in 659 patients with life-threatening COVID-19 to the same genes in 534 people with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 [1]. It turned out that 23, or 3.5 percent, of people with severe COVID-19 indeed carried rare mutations in genes involved in producing antiviral interferons. Those unusual aberrations never turned up in people with milder disease. The researchers went on to show in lab studies that those genetic errors leave human cells more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

The discovery was certainly intriguing, but given the rarity of those mutations, it doesn’t explain most instances of severe COVID-19. Still, it did give Casanova’s team another idea. Perhaps some other people who suffer from severe COVID-19 lack interferons too, but for different reasons. Perhaps their bodies were producing rogue antibodies that were crippling their own antiviral defenses.

In their second study, also in Science, that’s exactly what researchers found in 101 of 987 (over 10 percent) patients from around the world with life-threatening COVID-19 [2]. In the bloodstreams of such individuals, they detected auto-antibodies against an assortment of interferon proteins. Those antibodies, which blocked the interferons’ antiviral activity, weren’t found in people with more mild cases of COVID-19.

Interestingly, the vast majority of patients with those harmful antibodies were men. The findings might help to explain the observation that men are at greater risk than women for developing severe COVID-19. The patients with auto-antibodies also were slightly older, with about half over the age of 65.

Many questions remain. For instance, it’s not yet clear what drives the production of those debilitating auto-antibodies. Might there be more mutations in antiviral defense-related genes that researchers have yet to discover? Is it possible that interferon treatment may help some people with severe COVID-19? Such treatment may be difficult in patients with auto-antibodies, although some clinical trials to explore this possibility already are underway.

The findings, if confirmed, have some potentially immediate implications. It’s possible that screening patients for the presence of damaging auto-antibodies might help to identify those at greater risk for progressing to severe disease. Treatments to remove those antibodies from the bloodstream or to boost antiviral defenses in other ways also may help. Ideally, it would be a good idea to make sure donated convalescent plasma now being tested in clinical trials as a treatment for severe COVID-19 doesn’t contain such disruptive auto-antibodies.

These new findings come from an international effort involving hundreds of scientists called the COVID Human Genetic Effort. Besides its ongoing efforts to understand severe COVID-19, Casanova says his team is also taking a look at the other side of the coin: how some people who’ve been exposed to severe COVID-19 in their own households manage to not get sick. A related international group called the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative is pursuing similar goals. Such insights will be invaluable as we continue to manage and treat COVID-19 patients in the future.

References:

[1] Inborn errors of type I IFN immunity in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Zhang Q, Bastard P, Liu Z, Le Pen J, Moncada-Velez M, Gorochov G, Béziat V, Jouanguy E, Sancho-Shimizu V, Rice CM, Abel L, Notarangelo LD, Cobat A, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4570. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Auto-antibodies against type I IFNs in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Bastard P, Rosen LB, Zhang Q, Michailidis E, Hoffmann HH, Gorochov G, Jouanguy E, Rice CM, Cobat A, Notarangelo LD, Abel L, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4585. [Published online ahead of print.]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Interferons (Alpha, Beta) (NIH)

Interferons. Taylor MW. Viruses and Men: A History of Interactions. 2014 July 22. (Pubmed)

Video: Understanding the underlying genetics of COVID-19, Jean-Laurent Casanova (Youtube)

Jean-Laurent Casanova (The Rockefeller University, New York)

COVID Human Genetic Effort

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


The Prime Cellular Targets for the Novel Coronavirus

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Credit: NIH

There’s still a lot to learn about SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But it has been remarkable and gratifying to watch researchers from around the world pull together and share their time, expertise, and hard-earned data in the urgent quest to control this devastating virus.

That collaborative spirit was on full display in a recent study that characterized the specific human cells that SARS-CoV-2 likely singles out for infection [1]. This information can now be used to study precisely how each cell type interacts with the virus. It might ultimately help to explain why some people are more susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 than others, and how exactly to target the virus with drugs, immunotherapies, and vaccines to prevent or treat infections.

This work was driven by the mostly shuttered labs of Alex K. Shalek, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge; and Jose Ordovas-Montanes at Boston Children’s Hospital. In the end, it brought together (if only remotely) dozens of their colleagues in the Human Cell Atlas Lung Biological Network and others across the U.S., Europe, and South Africa.

The project began when Shalek, Ordovas-Montanes, and others read that before infecting human cells, SARS-CoV-2 docks on a protein receptor called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). This enzyme plays a role in helping the body maintain blood pressure and fluid balance.

The group was intrigued, especially when they also learned about a second enzyme that the virus uses to enter cells. This enzyme goes by the long acronym TMPRSS2, and it gets “tricked” into priming the spike proteins that cover SARS-CoV-2 to attack the cell. It’s the combination of these two proteins that provide a welcome mat for the virus.

Shalek, Ordovas-Montanes, and an international team including graduate students, post-docs, staff scientists, and principal investigators decided to dig a little deeper to find out precisely where in the body one finds cells that express this gene combination. Their curiosity took them to the wealth of data they and others had generated from model organisms and humans, the latter as part of the Human Cell Atlas. This collaborative international project is producing a comprehensive reference map of all human cells. For its first draft, the Human Cell Atlas aims to gather information on at least 10 billion cells.

To gather this information, the project relies, in part, on relatively new capabilities in sequencing the RNA of individual cells. Keep in mind that every cell in the body has essentially the same DNA genome. But different cells use different programs to decide which genes to turn on—expressing those as RNA molecules that can be translated into protein. The single-cell analysis of RNA allows them to characterize the gene expression and activities within each and every unique cell type. Based on what was known about the virus and the symptoms of COVID-19, the team focused their attention on the hundreds of cell types they identified in the lungs, nasal passages, and intestines.

As reported in Cell, by filtering through the data to identify cells that express ACE2 and TMPRSS2, the researchers narrowed the list of cell types in the nasal passages down to the mucus-producing goblet secretory cells. In the lung, evidence for activity of these two genes turned up in cells called type II pneumocytes, which line small air sacs known as alveoli and help to keep them open. In the intestine, it was the absorptive enterocytes, which play an important role in the body’s ability to take in nutrients.

The data also turned up another unexpected and potentially important connection. In these cells of interest, all of which are found in epithelial tissues that cover or line body surfaces, the ACE2 gene appeared to ramp up its activity in concert with other genes known to respond to interferon, a protein that the body makes in response to viral infections.

To dig further in the lab, the researchers treated cultured cells that line airways in the lungs with interferon. And indeed, the treatment increased ACE2 expression.

Earlier studies have suggested that ACE2 helps the lungs to tolerate damage. Completely missed was its connection to the interferon response. The researchers now suspect that’s because it hadn’t been studied in these specific human epithelial cells before.

The discovery suggests that SARS-CoV-2 and potentially other coronaviruses that rely on ACE2 may take advantage of the immune system’s natural defenses. When the body responds to the infection by producing more interferon, that in turn results in production of more ACE2, enhancing the ability of the virus to attach more readily to lung cells. While much more work is needed, the finding indicates that any potential use of interferon as a treatment to fight COVID-19 will require careful monitoring to determine if and when it might help patients.

It’s clear that these new findings, from data that weren’t originally generated with COVID-19 in mind, contained several potentially important new leads. This is another demonstration of the value of basic science. We can also rest assured that, with the outpouring of effort from members of the scientific community around the globe to meet this new challenge, progress along these and many other fronts will continue at a remarkable pace.

Reference:

[1] SARS-CoV-2 receptor ACE2 is an interferon-stimulated gene in human airway epithelial cells and is detected in specific cell subsets across tissues. Ziegler, CGK et al. Cell. April 20, 2020.

Links:

Coronaviruses (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Human Cell Atlas (Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA)

Shalek Lab (Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

Ordovas-Montanes Lab (Boston Children’s Hospital, MA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute