Rapid endotheliitis and vascular damage characterize SARS-CoV-2 infection in a human lung-chip model

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EMBO Rep. 2021 Apr 28:e52744. doi: 10.15252/embr.202152744. Online ahead of print.


Severe cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection are characterized by hypercoagulopathies and systemic endotheliitis of the lung microvasculature. The dynamics of vascular damage, and whether it is a direct consequence of endothelial infection or an indirect consequence of an immune-cell mediated cytokine storm remain unknown. Using a vascularised lung-on-chip model, we find that infection of alveolar epithelial cells leads to limited apical release of virions, consistent with reports of monoculture infection. However, viral RNA and proteins are rapidly detected in underlying endothelial cells, which are themselves refractory to apical infection in monocultures. Although endothelial infection is unproductive, it leads to the formation of cell clusters with low CD31 expression, a progressive loss of barrier integrity, and a pro-coagulatory microenvironment. Viral RNA persists in individual cells generating an inflammatory response which is transient in epithelial cells but persistent in endothelial cells and typified by IL-6 secretion even in the absence of immune cells. Inhibition of IL-6 signalling with Tocilizumab reduces but does not prevent loss of barrier integrity. SARS-CoV-2 mediated endothelial cell damage thus occurs independently of cytokine storm.

PMID:33908688 | DOI:10.15252/embr.202152744