Scientists discover how COVID-19 could cause multiple organ failure

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In a new study, researchers found how COVID-19 damages organs other than the lungs.

They discovered that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can shut down energy production in cells of the heart, kidneys, spleen, and other organs.

The research was conducted by UCLA scientists.

Among COVID-19 patients, those who have organs involved other than the lungs are most at risk of a bad outcome.

Research in humans has suggested that SARS-CoV-2 can circulate through the bloodstream to reach multiple organs.

So in the study, the researchers first engineered mice to have the human version of ACE2 in the heart and other vital organs. Then, they infected half of the animals by injecting SARS-CoV-2 into their bloodstreams.

Over the following days, the researchers tracked the animals’ overall health and analyzed how levels of certain genes and proteins in their bodies changed.

Within seven days, all of the mice with COVID-19 had stopped eating and were completely inactive and had lost, on average, about 20% of their body weight.

Animals that had been engineered to carry the human ACE2 protein but had not been infected with the virus, on the other hand, did not lose a significant amount of weight.

Moreover, the COVID-19 infected animals had altered levels of immune cells, swelling of the heart tissue, and wasting away of the spleen—all symptoms that have been observed in people who are critically ill with COVID-19.

The team also looked at which genes were turned on and off in the mice infected with SARS-CoV-2, and they discovered other signs of disease.

Common molecular processes that help cells generate energy—through mechanisms known as the tricarboxylic acid cycle or TCA cycle, and electron transport chain—were shut off in the heart, kidney, spleen, and lungs.

Finally, the study also found that some changes were long-lasting throughout the organs in mice with COVID-19.

In addition to temporarily altering which genes were turned on and off in some cells, the virus made epigenetic changes—chemical alterations to the structure of DNA that cause more lasting effects.

The team said that could explain why, in some people with COVID-19, symptoms persist for weeks or months after their bodies are rid of the virus.

One author of the study is Dr. Arjun Deb. The study is published in JCI Insight.

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