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Mapping Severe COVID-19 in the Lungs at Single-Cell Resolution

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lung microscopy with red macrophages and green fibrosis cells
Caption: Image shows macrophages (red), fibroblast cells (green), and other cells (blue). In late COVID-19, macrophages migrate near fibroblasts, which may play a role in fibrosis. Credit: Images courtesy of André Rendeiro

A crucial question for COVID-19 researchers is what causes progression of the initial infection, leading to life-threatening respiratory illness. A good place to look for clues is in the lungs of those COVID-19 patients who’ve tragically lost their lives to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), in which fluid and cellular infiltrates build up in the lung’s air sacs, called alveoli, keeping them from exchanging oxygen with the bloodstream.

As shown above, a team of NIH-funded researchers has done just that, capturing changes in the lungs over the course of a COVID-19 infection at unprecedented, single-cell resolution. These imaging data add evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, primarily infects cells at the surface of the air sacs. Their findings also offer valuable clues for treating the most severe consequences of COVID-19, suggesting that a certain type of scavenging immune cell might be driving the widespread lung inflammation that leads to ARDS.

The findings, published in Nature [1], come from Olivier Elemento and Robert E. Schwartz, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York. They already knew from earlier COVID-19 studies about the body’s own immune response causing the lung inflammation that leads to ARDS. What was missing was an understanding of the precise interplay between immune cells and lung tissue infected with SARS-CoV-2. It also wasn’t clear how the ARDS seen with COVID-19 compared to the ARDS seen in other serious respiratory diseases, including influenza and bacterial pneumonia.

Traditional tissue analysis uses chemical stains or tagged antibodies to label certain proteins and visualize important features in autopsied human tissues. But using these older techniques, it isn’t possible to capture more than a few such proteins at once. To get a more finely detailed view, the researchers used a more advanced technology called imaging mass cytometry [2].

This approach uses a collection of lanthanide metal-tagged antibodies to label simultaneously dozens of molecular markers on cells within tissues. Next, a special laser scans the labeled tissue sections, which vaporizes the heavy metal tags. As the metals are vaporized, their distinct signatures are detected in a mass spectrometer along with their spatial position relative to the laser. The technique makes it possible to map precisely where a diversity of distinct cell types is located in a tissue sample with respect to one another.

In the new study, the researchers applied the method to 19 lung tissue samples from patients who had died of severe COVID-19, acute bacterial pneumonia, or bacterial or influenza-related ARDS. They included 36 markers to differentiate various types of lung and immune cells as well as the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and molecular signs of immune activation, inflammation, and cell death. For comparison, they also mapped four lung tissue samples from people who had died without lung disease.

Altogether, they captured more than 200 lung tissue maps, representing more than 660,000 cells across all the tissues sampled. Those images showed in all cases that respiratory infection led to a thickening of the walls surrounding alveoli as immune cells entered. They also showed an increase in cell death in infected compared to healthy lungs.

Their maps suggest that what happens in the lungs of COVID-19 patients who die with ARDS isn’t entirely unique. It’s similar to what happens in the lungs of those with other life-threatening respiratory infections who also die with ARDS.

They did, however, reveal a potentially prominent role in COVID-19 for white blood cells called macrophages. The results showed that macrophages are much more abundant in the lungs of severe COVID-19 patients compared to other lung infections.

In late COVID-19, macrophages also increase in the walls of alveoli, where they interact with lung cells known as fibroblasts. This suggests these interactions may play a role in the buildup of damaging fibrous tissue, or scarring, in the alveoli that tends to be seen in severe COVID-19 respiratory infections.

While the virus initiates this life-threatening damage, its progression may not depend on the persistence of the virus, but on an overreaction of the immune system. This may explain why immunomodulatory treatments like dexamethasone can provide benefit to the sickest patients with COVID-19. To learn even more, the researchers are making their data and maps available as a resource for scientists around the world who are busily working to understand this devastating illness and help put an end to the terrible toll caused by this pandemic.


[1] The spatial landscape of lung pathology during COVID-19 progression. Rendeiro AF, Ravichandran H, Bram Y, Chandar V, Kim J, Meydan C, Park J, Foox J, Hether T, Warren S, Kim Y, Reeves J, Salvatore S, Mason CE, Swanson EC, Borczuk AC, Elemento O, Schwartz RE. Nature. 2021 Mar 29.

[2] Mass cytometry imaging for the study of human diseases-applications and data analysis strategies. Baharlou H, Canete NP, Cunningham AL, Harman AN, Patrick E. Front Immunol. 2019 Nov 14;10:2657.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Elemento Lab (Weill Cornell Medicine, New York)

Schwartz Lab (Weill Cornell Medicine)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Cancer Institute

CRISPR-Based Anti-Viral Therapy Could One Day Foil the Flu—and COVID-19

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Artistic rendering of CRISPR Cas13a as scissors

CRISPR gene-editing technology has tremendous potential for making non-heritable DNA changes that can treat or even cure a wide range of devastating disorders, from HIV to muscular dystrophy Now, a recent animal study shows that another CRISPR system—targeting viral RNA instead of human DNA—could work as an inhaled anti-viral therapeutic that can be preprogrammed to seek out and foil potentially almost any flu strain and many other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

How can that be? Other CRISPR gene-editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. This new anti-viral CRISPR system also relies on guide RNA. But the guide instead directs a different bacterial enzyme, called Cas13a, to the right spot in the viral genome to bind and cleave viral RNA and stop viruses from replicating in lung cells.

The findings, recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology [1], come from the lab of Philip Santangelo, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Atlanta. Earlier studies by other groups had shown the potential of Cas13 for degrading the RNA of influenza viruses in a lab dish [2,3]. In this latest work, Santangelo and colleagues turned to mice and hamsters to see whether this enzyme could actually work in the lung tissue of a living animal.

What’s interesting is how Santangelo’s team did it. Rather than delivering the Cas13a protein itself to the lungs, the CRISPR system works by supplying a messenger RNA (mRNA) with the instructions to make the anti-viral Cas13a protein. This is the same idea as the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, which temporarily direct your muscle cells to produce viral spike proteins that launch an immune response. In this case, the lung cells translate the Cas13a mRNA to produce the protein. Directed by the guide RNA that was also delivered to the same cells, Cas13a degrades the viral RNA and stops the infection. Because mRNA doesn’t enter the cell’s nucleus, it doesn’t interact with DNA and raise potential concerns about causing unwanted genetic changes.

The researchers designed guide RNAs that were specific to a shared, highly conserved portion of influenza viruses involved in replicating their genome and infecting other cells. They also designed another set directed to key portions of SARS-CoV-2.

Next, they delivered the Cas13a mRNA and guides straight to the lungs of animals using an adapted nebulizer, just like those used to deliver medicines to the lungs of people. In mice with influenza, Cas13a degraded influenza RNA in the lungs and the animals recovered without any apparent side effects. In SARS-CoV-2-infected hamsters, the same approach limited the virus’s ability to replicate in cells as the animals COVID-19-like symptoms improved.

The findings are the first to show that mRNA can be used to express the Cas13a protein in living lung tissue, not just in cells in a dish. It’s also the first to show that the bacterial Cas13a protein is effective at slowing or stopping replication of SARS-CoV-2. The latter raises hope that this CRISPR system could be quickly adapted to fight any future novel coronaviruses that develop the ability to infect humans.

The researchers report that this approach has potential to work against the vast majority—99 percent—of the flu strains that have circulated around the world over the last century. It also should be equally effective against the new and more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 now circulating around the globe. While more study is needed to understand the safety of such an anti-viral approach before trying it in humans, what’s clear is basic research advances like this one hold great potential for helping us to fight life-threatening respiratory viruses of the past, present, and future.


[1] Treatment of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 infections via mRNA-encoded Cas13a in rodents. Blanchard EL, Vanover D, Bawage SS, Tiwari PM, Rotolo L, Beyersdorf J, Peck HE, Bruno NC, Hincapie R, Michel F, Murray J, Sadhwani H, Vanderheyden B, Finn MG, Brinton MA, Lafontaine ER, Hogan RJ, Zurla C, Santangelo PJ. Nat Biotechnol. 2021 Feb 3. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Programmable inhibition and detection of RNA viruses using Cas13. Freije CA, Myhrvold C, Boehm CK, Lin AE, Welch NL, Carter A, Metsky HC, Luo CY, Abudayyeh OO, Gootenberg JS, Yozwiak NL, Zhang F, Sabeti PC. Mol Cell. 2019 Dec 5;76(5):826-837.e11.

[3] Development of CRISPR as an antiviral strategy to combat SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. Abbott TR, Dhamdhere G, Liu Y, Lin X, Goudy L, Zeng L, Chemparathy A, Chmura S, Heaton NS, Debs R, Pande T, Endy D, La Russa MF, Lewis DB, Qi LS. Cell. 2020 May 14;181(4):865-876.e12.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

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

Santangelo Lab (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta)

Trying to Make Sense of Long COVID Syndrome

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Credit: NIH

More than 400,000 Americans have now lost their lives to COVID-19. But thousands of others who’ve gotten sick and survived COVID-19 are finding that a full recovery can be surprisingly elusive. Weeks and months after seemingly recovering from even mild cases of COVID-19, many battle a wide range of health problems.

Indeed, new results from the largest global study of this emerging “Long COVID syndrome” highlight just how real and pressing this public health concern really is. The study, reported recently as a pre-print on medRxiv, is based on survey results from more than 3,700 self-described COVID “Long Haulers” in 56 countries [1]. They show nearly half couldn’t work full time six months after unexpectedly developing prolonged symptoms of COVID-19. A small percentage of respondents, thankfully, seemed to have bounced back from brief bouts of Long COVID, though time will tell whether they have fully recovered.

These findings are the second installment from the online Body Politic COVID-19 Support Group and its Patient-Led Research for COVID-19, which consists of citizen scientists with a wide range of expertise in the arts and sciences who are struggling with the prolonged effects of COVID-19 themselves. In an earlier survey, this group provided a first-draft description of Long COVID syndrome, based on the self-reported experiences of 640 respondents.

In the new survey-based study led by Athena Akrami, with Patient-Led Research for COVID-19 and University College London, England, the goal was to characterize the experiences of many more people with Long COVID syndrome. They now define the syndrome as a collection of symptoms lasting for more than 28 days.

This second survey emphasizes the course and severity of more than 200 symptoms over time, including those affecting the heart, lungs, gastrointestinal system, muscles, and joints. It took a particularly in-depth look at neurological and neuropsychiatric symptoms, along with the ability of COVID-19 survivors to return to work and participate in other aspects of everyday life.

The 3,762 individuals who responded to the survey were predominately white females, between the ages of 30 and 60, who lived in the United States. As in the previous survey, the study included adults with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, whether or not the infection had been confirmed by a viral or antibody test. That is a potential weakness of the study, as some of these individuals may have had some other inciting illness. But many of the study’s participants developed symptoms early on in the pandemic, when testing was much more limited than it is now.

More than half never sought hospital care. Only 8 percent said that they’d been admitted to the hospital for COVID-19. And yet, 2,464 respondents reported COVID-19 symptoms lasting six months or longer. Most of the remaining respondents also continued to have symptoms, although they had not yet reached the six-month mark.

Among the most common symptoms were fatigue, worsening of symptoms after physical or mental activity, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, and “brain fog,” or difficulty thinking clearly. The majority—88 percent—said they coped with some form of cognitive dysfunction or memory loss that to varying degrees affected their everyday lives. That includes the ability to make decisions, have conversations, follow instructions, and drive.

Those who had prolonged symptoms of COVID-19 for more than six months reported contending with about 14 symptoms on average. Most also reported that they’d had a relapse of symptoms, seemingly triggered by exercise, mental activity, or just everyday stress. When surveyed, nearly half of respondents said they’d had to reduce their hours at work due to the severity of their symptoms. Another 22 percent weren’t working at all due to their Long COVID.

The findings show that—even in those people who don’t require hospitalization for severe COVID-19—the condition’s prolonged symptoms are having a major impact on lives and livelihoods, both here and around the world. While the number of people affected isn’t yet known, if even a small proportion of the vast numbers of people infected with COVID-19 develop Long COVID syndrome, it represents a significant public health concern.

Another recent study from China further documents the tendency of COVID-19-related symptoms to linger past the usual recovery time for a respiratory virus [2]. The study, published in Lancet, showed that six months after the onset of illness, more than 75 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wuhan between January and May 2020 continued to report at least one symptom. Fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression all were common. More than half of individuals also had significant persistent lung abnormalities, which were more common in those who’d been more severely ill.

It’s essential for us to learn all we can about how SARS-CoV-2, which is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, leads to such widespread symptoms. It’s also essential that we develop ways to better treat or prevent these symptoms. The NIH held a workshop last month to summarize what is known and fill in key gaps in our knowledge about Long COVID syndrome, which is clinically known as post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). In December, Congress authorized funding for continued research on PASC, including an appropriation of funds for NIH to support continued study of these prolonged health consequences.

As these efforts and others proceed in the coming months, the hope is that we’ll gain much more insight and get some answers soon. And, if you’ve had or are currently experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, there’s still time to share your data by participating in the Patient-Led Research for COVID-19’s second survey.


[1] Characterizing Long COVID in an international cohort: 7 months of symptoms and their impact. David HE et al. Medrxiv. 27 December 27 2020.

[2] 6-month consequences of COVID-19 in patients discharged from hospital: a cohort study. Huang C, Huang L, et al. Lancet. 2021 Jan 16;397(10270):220-232.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Akrami Lab (Sainsbury Wellcome Center, University College London, England)

Patient-led Research for COVID-19

Video: Workshop on Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19 (NIH)

A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells

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SARS-CoV-2 infected lung cells
Credit: Ehre Lab, UNC School of Medicine

If you or a loved one have come down with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, you know it often takes hold in the respiratory system. This image offers a striking example of exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when this coronavirus infects them.

This colorized scanning electron microscope (SEM) image shows SARS-CoV-2-infected human lung cells (purple) covered in hair-like cilia (blue). Those cilia line the inner surface of the airways and help to clear mucus (yellow-green) containing dust and other debris from the lungs. Emerging from the surface of those infected airway cells are many thousands of coronavirus particles (red).

This dramatic image, published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehre and team study mucus and how its properties change in cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and various other conditions that affect the lungs. These days, they’re also focusing their attention on SARS-CoV-2 and potentially new ways to block viral entry into cells of the human airway.

As part of that effort, she and her colleagues captured this snapshot of SARS-CoV-2 viruses exiting from lung cells in a lab dish. They first cultured cells from the lining of a human airway, then inoculated them with the virus. Ninety-six hours later, this is what they saw in greyscale. The vivid colors were added later by UNC medical student Cameron Morrison.

The image illustrates the astoundingly large number of viral particles that can be produced and released from infected human cells. Ehre notes that in a lab dish containing about a million human cells, they’ve witnessed the virus explode from about 1,000 particles to about 10 million in just a couple of days.

The dramatic increase in viral particles helps to explain how COVID-19 spreads so easily from the lungs to other parts of the body and—all too often—on to other individuals, especially in crowded, indoor places where people aren’t able to keep their distance. Hopefully, images like this one will help to inspire more of us this winter to avoid the crowds (especially indoors), wear masks, and wash our hands frequently.


[1] SARS-CoV-2 infection of airway cells. Ehre C. NEJM. 2020 Sep 3;383(10):969.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Camille Ehre (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Mini-Lungs in a Lab Dish Mimic Early COVID-19 Infection

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Credit: Arvind Konkimalla, Tata Lab, Duke University, Durham, NC

Researchers have become skilled at growing an array of miniature human organs in the lab. Such lab-grown “organoids” have been put to work to better understand diabetes, fatty liver disease, color vision, and much more. Now, NIH-funded researchers have applied this remarkable lab tool to produce mini-lungs to study SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The intriguing bubble-like structures (red/clear) in the mini-lung pictured above represent developing alveoli, the tiny air sacs in our lungs, where COVID-19 infections often begin. In this organoid, the air sacs consist of many thousands of cells, all of which arose from a single adult stem cell isolated from tissues found deep within healthy human lungs. When carefully nurtured in lab dishes, those so-called alveolar epithelial type-2 cells (AT2s) begin to multiply. As they grow, they spontaneously assemble into structures that closely resemble alveoli.

A team led by Purushothama Rao Tata, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, developed these mini-lungs in a quest to understand how adult stem cells help to regenerate damaged tissue in the deepest recesses of the lungs, where SARS-CoV-2 attacks. In earlier studies, the researchers had shown it was possible for these cells to produce miniature alveoli. But there was a problem: the “soup” they used to nurture the growing cells included ingredients that weren’t well defined, making it hard to characterize the experiments fully.

In the study, now reported in Cell Stem Cell, the researchers found a way to simplify and define that brew. For the first time, they could produce mini-lungs consisting only of human lung cells. By growing them in large numbers in the lab, they can now learn more about SARS-CoV-2 infection and look for new ways to prevent or treat it.

Tata and his collaborators at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have already confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 infects the mini-lungs via the critical ACE2 receptor, just as the virus is known to do in the lungs of an infected person.

Interestingly, the cells also produce cytokines, inflammatory molecules that have been tied to tissue damage. The findings suggest the cytokine signals may come from the lungs themselves, even before immune cells arrive on the scene.

The heavily infected lung cells eventually self-destruct and die. In an unexpected turn of events, they even induce cell death in some neighboring healthy cells that are not infected. The relevance of the studies to the clinic was boosted by the finding that the gene activity patterns in the mini-lungs are a close match to those found in samples taken from six patients with severe COVID-19.

Now that he’s got the recipe down, Tata is busy making organoids and helping to model COVID-19 infections, with the hope of identifying and testing promising new treatments. It’s clear these mini-lungs are breathing some added life into the basic study of COVID-19.


[1] Human lung stem cell-based alveolospheres provide insights into SARS-CoV-2-mediated interferon responses and pneumocyte dysfunction. Katsura H, Sontake V, Tata A, Kobayashi Y, Edwards CE, Heaton BE, Konkimalla A, Asakura T, Mikami Y, Fritch EJ, Lee PJ, Heaton NS, Boucher RC, Randell SH, Baric RS, Tata PR. Cell Stem Cell. 2020 Oct 21:S1934-5909(20)30499-9.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Tata Lab (Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC)

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

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