Recombinant ACE2 Expression is Required for SARS-CoV-2 to Infect Primary Human Endothelial Cells and Induce Inflammatory and Procoagulative Responses

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Jonas Nascimento Conde

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Microbiology

William R. Schutt

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Microbiology

Elena Gorbunova

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Microbiology

Erich R. Mackow

Published 1 Project

Microbiology

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SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19, an acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) characterized by pulmonary edema, viral pneumonia, multiorgan dysfunction, coagulopathy and inflammation. SARS-CoV-2 uses angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors to infect and damage ciliated epithelial cells in the upper respiratory tract. In alveoli, gas exchange occurs across an epithelial-endothelial barrier that ties respiration to endothelial cell (EC) regulation of edema, coagulation and inflammation. How SARS-CoV-2 dysregulates vascular functions to cause ARDS in COVID-19 patients remains an enigma focused on dysregulated EC responses. Whether SARS-CoV-2 directly or indirectly affects functions of the endothelium remains to be resolved and critical to understanding SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis and therapeutic targets. We demonstrate that primary human ECs lack ACE2 receptors at protein and RNA levels, and that SARS-CoV-2 is incapable of directly infecting ECs derived from pulmonary, cardiac, brain, umbilical vein or kidney tissues. In contrast, pulmonary ECs transduced with recombinant ACE2 receptors are infected by SARS-CoV-2 and result in high viral titers (~1x107/ml), multinucleate syncytia and EC lysis. SARS-CoV-2 infection of ACE2-expressing ECs elicits procoagulative and inflammatory responses observed in COVID-19 patients. The inability of SARS-CoV-2 to directly infect and lyse ECs without ACE2 expression explains the lack of vascular hemorrhage in COVID-19 patients and indicates that the endothelium is not a primary target of SARS-CoV-2 infection. These findings are consistent with SARS-CoV-2 indirectly activating EC programs that regulate thrombosis and endotheliitis in COVID-19 patients, and focus strategies on therapeutically targeting epithelial and inflammatory responses that activate the endothelium or initiate limited ACE2 independent EC infection.

Microbiology
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