SARS-CoV-2 activates lung epithelial cell proinflammatory signaling and leads to immune dysregulation in COVID-19 patients

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EBioMedicine. 2021 Jul 23;70:103500. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2021.103500. Online ahead of print.


BACKGROUND: The outbreak of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection has become a global health emergency. We aim to decipher SARS-CoV-2 infected cell types, the consequent host immune response and their interplay in lung of COVID-19 patients.

METHODS: We analyzed single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) data of bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) samples from 10 healthy donors, 6 severe COVID-19 patients and 3 mild recovered patients. The expressions of SARS-CoV-2 receptors (ACE2 and TMPRSS2) were examined among different cell types. The immune cells infiltration patterns, their expression profiles, and interplays between immune cells and SARS-CoV-2 target cells were further investigated.

FINDINGS: Compared to healthy controls, ACE2 and TMPRSS2 expressions were significantly higher in lung epithelial cells of COVID-19 patients, in particular club and ciliated cells. SARS-CoV-2 activated pro-inflammatory genes and interferon/cytokine signaling in these cells. In severe COVID-19 patients, significantly higher neutrophil, but lower macrophage in lung was observed along with markedly increased cytokines expression compared with healthy controls and mild patients. By contrast, neutrophil and macrophage returned to normal level whilst more T and NK cells accumulation were observed in mild patients. Moreover, SARS-CoV-2 infection altered the community interplays of lung epithelial and immune cells: interactions between the club and immune cells were higher in COVID-19 patients compared to healthy donors; on the other hand, immune-immune cells interactions appeared the strongest in mild patients.

INTERPRETATION: SARS-CoV-2 could infect lung epithelium, alter communication patterns between lung epithelial cells and immune system, and drive dysregulated host immune response in COVID-19 patients.

PMID:34311326 | DOI:10.1016/j.ebiom.2021.103500