Cells most vulnerable to coronavirus are in lungs, nose, intestines: study

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Cells in the lungs, intestines and nasal passages were identified in a recent study as those most susceptible to the coronavirus.

Researchers hope the findings can better inform decisions moving forward in finding a vaccine.

Experts identified the cell types which produce the two proteins COVID-19 uses to target and invade cells through a database that specifies which genes are turned on by which cells.

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Single-cell RNA sequencing technology allowed the researchers to specify the genes turned on by certain cells. The database of existing studies, most part of the Human Cell Atlas project, involved the large-scale analysis of tens of thousands of human, primate, and mouse cells.

“Because we have this incredible repository of information, we were able to begin to look at what would be likely target cells for infection,” Alex Shalek, the paper's author and chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told DailyMail UK.

“Even though these datasets weren't designed specifically to study COVID-19, it's hopefully given us a jump start on identifying some of the things that might be relevant there,” he said.

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First off, in the nasal passages, mucus-producing “goblet secretory cells” have both of the required proteins the virus needs to invade a cell. Meanwhile, “type II pneumocytes” lining small air sacs in the lungs are also vulnerable. In the intestines, “absorptive enterocyte” cells responsible for absorbing some nutrients expressed were found to be most vulnerable.

Dr. Jose Ordovas-Montanes of the Boston Children's Hospital said the study “definitely paints a much more precise picture than where the field stood before.”

“Now we can say with some level of confidence that these receptors are expressed on these specific cells in these tissues,” he said.

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Furthermore, researchers found that COVID-19 now exploits interferon, a protein that typically helps the body fight off viral infections.

The team's findings indicate that coronaviruses may have evolved to subvert part of their host's natural defenses, turning them to their advantage, according to the news outlet.

While patients with infections like hepatitis B and C are often treated with interferon to fight off viruses, the scientists cautioned that the study findings complicate interferon’s role in regards to coronavirus.

“It's hard to make any broad conclusions about the role of interferon against this virus. The only way we'll begin to understand that is through carefully controlled clinical trials,” Shalek told DailyMail UK. “What we are trying to do is put information out there, because there are so many rapid clinical responses that people are making. We're trying to make them aware of things that might be relevant.”

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The researchers’ next steps entail profiling tissue models, including the identified vulnerable cells. The completed product could be used in tests with potential antiviral drug treatments in predicting effectiveness against infection with SARS-CoV-2.

"Our goal is to get information out to the community and to share data as soon as is humanly possible so that we can help accelerate ongoing efforts in the scientific and medical communities,” Shalek said.

Complete study findings were published in the journal Cell.