In a new study led by Cedars-Sinai, researchers have used stem cell technology to investigate the potential for COVID-19 to directly attack heart muscle. The experts found that SARS-CoV-2 infected individual heart cells in a lab dish.
Many COVID-19 patients experience heart complications, but the underlying causes are not yet clear. While pre-existing conditions or inflammation and oxygen deprivation have been implicated as potential sources, the new research suggests that COVID-19 is capable of directly damaging the heart.
“We not only uncovered that these stem cell-derived heart cells are susceptible to infection by novel coronavirus, but that the virus can also quickly divide within the heart muscle cells,” said study co-author Dr. Arun Sharma. “Even more significant, the infected heart cells showed changes in their ability to beat after 72 hours of infection.”
The heart cells infected by SARS-CoV-2 were also found to change their gene expression profile, which suggests cellular defenses were activated.
Even though the muscle cells used in the study were engineered with stem cell technology, the findings will help to identify new antiviral compounds that could alleviate viral infection of the heart, according to study senior author Dr. Clive Svendsen.
“This viral pandemic is predominantly defined by respiratory symptoms, but there are also cardiac complications, including arrhythmias, heart failure and viral myocarditis,” said Dr. Svendsen. “While this could be the result of massive inflammation in response to the virus, our data suggest that the heart could also be directly affected by the virus in COVID-19.”
The application of an ACE2 antibody suppressed the virus in the heart cells. This finding indicates that SARS-CoV-2 uses the ACE2 receptor to enter heart muscle cells, which is the same receptor the virus uses to gain entry into the lungs.
“By blocking the ACE2 protein with an antibody, the virus is not as easily able to bind to the ACE2 protein, and thus cannot easily enter the cell,” said Dr. Sharma. “This not only helps us understand the mechanisms of how this virus functions, but also suggests therapeutic approaches that could be used as a potential treatment for SARS-CoV-2 infection.”
The study is published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine.