UCLA scientists discover how SARS-CoV-2 causes multiple organ failure in mice

Heart muscle cells in an uninfected mouse (left) and a mouse infected with SARS-CoV-2 (right) with mitochondria seen in pink. The disorganization of the cells and mitochondria in the image at right is associated with irregular heartbeat and death.
Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Center

As the worldwide coronavirus pandemic rages on, scientists are trying to better understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the effects that it may have beyond those most commonly observed in the lungs. A CIRM-funded project at UCLA, co-led by Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, Ph.D. and Arjun Deb, M.D. discovered that SARS-CoV-2 can cause organ failure in the heart, kidney, spleen, and other vital organs of mice.

Mouse models are used to better understand the effects that a disease can have on humans. SARS-CoV-2 relies on a protein named ACE2 to infect humans. However, the virus doesn’t recognize the mouse version of the ACE2 protein, so healthy mice exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus don’t get sick.

To address this, past experiments by other research teams have genetically engineered mice to have the human version of the ACE2 protein in their lungs. These teams then infected the mice, through the nose, with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although this process led to viral infection in the mice and caused pneumonia, they don’t get as broad a range of other symptoms as humans do.

Previous research in humans has suggested that SARS-CoV-2 can circulate through the bloodstream to reach multiple organs. To evaluate this further, the UCLA researchers genetically engineered mice to have the human version of the ACE2 protein in the heart and other vital organs. They then infected half of the mice by injecting SARS-CoV-2 into their bloodstreams and compared them to mice that were not infected. The UCLA team tracked overall health and analyzed how levels of certain genes and proteins in the mice changed.

Within seven days, all of the mice infected with the virus had stopped eating, were completely inactive, and had lost an average of about 20% of their body weight. The genetically engineered mice that had not been infected with the virus did not lose a significant amount of weight. Furthermore, the infected mice had altered levels of immune cells, swelling of the heart tissue, and deterioration of the spleen. All of these are symptoms that have been observed in people who are critically ill with COVID-19.

What’s even more surprising is that the UCLA team also found that genes that help cells generate energy were shut off in the heart, kidney, spleen and lungs of the infected mice. The study also revealed that some changes were long-lasting throughout the organs in mice with SARS-CoV-2. Not only were genes turned off in some cells, the virus made epigenetic changes, which are chemical alterations to the structure of DNA that can cause more lasting effects. This might help explain why some people that have contracted COVID-19 have symptoms for weeks or months after they no longer have traces of the virus in their body.

In a UCLA press release, Dr. Deb discusses the importance and significance of their findings.

“This mouse model is a really powerful tool for studying SARS-CoV-2 in a living system. Understanding how this virus can hijack our cells might eventually lead to new ways to prevent or treat the organ failure that can accompany COVID-19 in humans.”

The full results of this study were published in JCI Insight.

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