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 . 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.
Most people who get the flu bounce right back in a week or two. But, for others, the respiratory infection is the beginning of lasting asthma-like symptoms. Though I had a flu shot, I had a pretty bad respiratory illness last fall, and since that time I’ve had exercise-induced asthma that has occasionally required an inhaler for treatment. What’s going on? An NIH-funded team now has evidence from mouse studies that such long-term consequences stem in part from a surprising source: previously unknown lung cells closely resembling those found in taste buds.
The image above shows the lungs of a mouse after a severe case of H1N1 influenza infection, a common type of seasonal flu. Notice the oddball cells (green) known as solitary chemosensory cells (SCCs). Those little-known cells display the very same chemical-sensing surface proteins found on the tongue, where they allow us to sense bitterness. What makes these images so interesting is, prior to infection, the healthy mouse lungs had no SCCs.
SCCs, sometimes called “tuft cells” or “brush cells” or “type II taste receptor cells”, were first described in the 1920s when a scientist noticed unusual looking cells in the intestinal lining  Over the years, such cells turned up in the epithelial linings of many parts of the body, including the pancreas, gallbladder, and nasal passages. Only much more recently did scientists realize that those cells were all essentially the same cell type. Owing to their sensory abilities, these epithelial cells act as a kind of lookout for signs of infection or injury.
This latest work on SCCs, published recently in the American Journal of Physiology–Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology, adds to this understanding. It comes from a research team led by Andrew Vaughan, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia .
As a post-doc, Vaughan and colleagues had discovered a new class of cells, called lineage-negative epithelial progenitors, that are involved in abnormal remodeling and regrowth of lung tissue after a serious respiratory infection . Upon closer inspection, they noticed that the remodeling of lung tissue post-infection often was accompanied by sustained inflammation. What they didn’t know was why.
The team, including Noam Cohen of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and De’Broski Herbert, also of Penn Vet, noticed signs of an inflammatory immune response several weeks after an influenza infection. Such a response in other parts of the body is often associated with allergies and asthma. All were known to involve SCCs, and this begged the question: were SCCs also present in the lungs?
Further work showed not only were SCCs present in the lungs post-infection, they were interspersed across the tissue lining. When the researchers exposed the animals’ lungs to bitter compounds, the activated SCCs multiplied and triggered acute inflammation.
Vaughan’s team also found out something pretty cool. The SCCs arise from the very same lineage of epithelial progenitor cells that Vaughan had discovered as a post-doc. These progenitor cells produce cells involved in remodeling and repair of lung tissue after a serious lung infection.
Of course, mice aren’t people. The researchers now plan to look in human lung samples to confirm the presence of these cells following respiratory infections.
If confirmed, the new findings might help to explain why kids who acquire severe respiratory infections early in life are at greater risk of developing asthma. They suggest that treatments designed to control these SCCs might help to treat or perhaps even prevent lifelong respiratory problems. The hope is that ultimately it will help to keep more people breathing easier after a severe bout with the flu.
Colds are just an occasional nuisance for many folks, but some individuals seem to come down with them much more frequently. Now, NIH-funded researchers have uncovered some new clues as to why.
In their study, the researchers found that the cells that line our airways are quite adept at defending against cold-causing rhinoviruses. But there’s a tradeoff. When these cells are busy defending against tissue damage due to cigarette smoke, pollen, pollutants, and/or other airborne irritants, their ability to fend off such viruses is significantly reduced .
The new findings may open the door to better strategies for preventing the common cold, as well as other types of respiratory tract infections caused by non-flu viruses. Even small improvements in prevention could have big implications for our nation’s health and economy. Every year, Americans come down with more than 500 million colds and similar infections, leading to reduced work productivity, medical expenses, and other costs approaching $40 billion .