In a new study, researchers found changes in blood platelets triggered by COVID-19 could contribute to heart attacks, strokes, and other serious complications in some patients.
They found that inflammatory proteins produced during infection alter the function of platelets, making them “hyperactive” and more prone to form dangerous and potentially deadly blood clots.
In addition, pre-treating platelets from SARS-CoV-2 infected patients with aspirin did prevent this hyperactivity.
But the team warns against using aspirin to treat COVID-19 unless recommended by doctors.
The research was conducted by the University of Utah Health scientists.
Emerging evidence suggests COVID-19 is linked to an increased risk of blood clotting, which can lead to cardiovascular problems and organ failure in some patients, particularly among those with underlying medical problems such as diabetes, obesity, or high blood pressure.
To find out what might be going on, the researchers studied 41 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Seventeen of these patients were in the ICU, including nine who were on ventilators. They compared the blood from these patients with samples taken from healthy individuals.
Using differential gene analysis, the researchers found that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, appears to trigger genetic changes in platelets.
In laboratory studies, they studied platelet aggregation, an important component of blood clot formation, and observed COVID-19 platelets aggregated more readily.
They also noted that these changes significantly altered how platelets interacted with the immune system, likely contributing to inflammation of the respiratory tract that may, in turn, result in more severe lung injury.
Surprisingly, the team didn’t detect evidence of the virus in the vast majority of platelets, suggesting that it could be promoting the genetic changes within these cells indirectly.
One possible mechanism is inflammation. In theory, inflammation caused by COVID-19 could affect megakaryocytes, the cells that produce platelets.
As a result, critical genetic alterations are passed down from megakaryocytes to the platelets, which, in turn, make them hyperactive.
These findings suggest aspirin may improve outcomes; however, this will need further study in clinical trials.
In the meantime, the researchers are beginning to look for other possible treatments.
They say better understanding the underlying causes of these changes could possibly lead to treatments that prevent them from happening in COVID-19 patients.
One author of the study is Robert A. Campbell, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine.
The study is published in Blood.
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