Nearly two years after the SARS-CoV-2 virus became a global pandemic, the mystery of which proteins in the virus cause significant vascular damage that might result in heart attack or stroke remains unsolved.
For the first time, a team of researchers led by Tel Aviv University has identified five of the virus’s 29 proteins that are responsible for blood vessel damage. The researchers anticipate that identifying these proteins may aid in the development of COVID-19-targeted medicines that prevent vascular injury.
The study was published in the journal eLife.
“We notice an extremely high rate of vascular illness and blood clotting, such as stroke and heart attack, in COVID patients,” Dr. Ben Maoz of the Department of Biomedical Engineering explains. “While we prefer to think of COVID as predominantly a respiratory disease, the reality is that coronavirus patients have a threefold increased risk of having a stroke or heart attack. All evidence indicates that the virus causes serious damage to the blood arteries or the endothelial cells that line them. However, the virus has been treated as a single organism to this day. We sought to determine which viral proteins were causing this type of harm.”
The new coronavirus is a reasonably straightforward virus; it consists of 29 distinct proteins (compared to the tens of thousands of proteins produced by the human body). The Tel Aviv University researchers analyzed the reaction that occurred when the various RNA sequences were put into human blood vessel cells in the laboratory; they were able to identify five coronavirus proteins that cause blood vessel damage.
“When a coronavirus enters the body, it begins producing 29 proteins, a new virus is generated, and that virus generates 29 further proteins, and so on,” Dr. Maoz adds. “During this process, our blood arteries transform from opaque tubes to porous nets or pieces of cloth, while blood clotting increases concurrently.
“We analyzed the effect of each of the virus’s 29 proteins in detail and were able to identify the five individual proteins that cause the most harm to endothelial cells, and hence to vascular integrity and function. Additionally, we used a computational model built by Prof. Sharan to assess and identify which coronavirus proteins had the greatest influence on other tissues without seeing them ‘in action’ in the laboratory.”
According to Dr. Maoz, identifying these proteins could have a substantial impact on the virus’s struggle. “Our research may assist identify targets for a medicine that will be utilized to inhibit the virus’s action or at the very least decrease blood vessel damage.”