Published on Wed Aug 11 2021

SARS-CoV-2 Spike S1 glycoprotein is a TLR4 agonist, upregulates ACE2 expression and induces pro-inflammatory M1 macrophage polarisation.

Aboudounya, M. M., Holt, M. R., Heads, R. J.

TLR4 is an important innate immune receptor that recognizes bacterial LPS, viral proteins and other pathogen associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) We previously proposed a model whereby SARS-CoV-2 activation of TLR4 via its spike glycoprotein S1 domain increases ACE2 expression, viral loads and hyperinflammation with COVID-19 disease. Here we demonstrate that the Sars-Cov-2 spike S1 Domain is a TLR 4 agonist in rat and human cells and induces a pro-inflammatory M1 macrophage phenotype.

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Abstract

Background and aims: TLR4 is an important innate immune receptor that recognizes bacterial LPS, viral proteins and other pathogen associated molecular patterns (PAMPs). It is expressed on tissue-resident and immune cells. We previously proposed a model whereby SARS-CoV-2 activation of TLR4 via its spike glycoprotein S1 domain increases ACE2 expression, viral loads and hyperinflammation with COVID-19 disease [1]. Here we test this hypothesis in vitro and demonstrate that the SARS-CoV-2 spike S1 domain is a TLR4 agonist in rat and human cells and induces a pro-inflammatory M1 macrophage phenotype in human THP-1 monocyte-derived macrophages. Methods: Adult rat cardiac tissue resident macrophage-derived fibrocytes (rcTMFs) were treated with either bacterial LPS or recombinant SARS-CoV-2 spike S1 glycoprotein. The expression of ACE2 and other inflammatory and fibrosis markers were assessed by immunoblotting. S1/TLR4 co-localisation/binding was assessed by immunocytochemistry and proximity ligation assays on rcTMFs and human HEK-293 HA-TLR4-expressing cells. THP-1 monocytes were differentiated into M1 or M2 macrophages with LPS/IFN-{gamma}, S1/IFN-{gamma} or IL-4 and RNA was extracted for RT-qPCR of M1/M2 markers and ACE2. Results: TLR4 activation by spike S1 or LPS resulted in the upregulation of ACE2 in rcTMFs as shown by immunoblotting. Likewise, spike S1 caused TLR4-mediated induction of the inflammatory/wound healing marker COX-2 and concomitant downregulation of the fibrosis markers CTGF and Col3a1, similar to LPS. The specific TLR4 TIR domain signalling inhibitor CLI-095 (Resatorvid), blocked the effects of spike S1 and LPS, confirming that spike S1 is a TLR4 agonist and viral PAMP (VAMP). ACE2 expression was also inhibited by the dynamin inhibitor Dynasore, suggesting ACE2 expression is mediated by the alternative endosomal/{beta}-interferon pathway. Confocal immunofluorescence microscopy confirmed 1:1 stoichiometric spike S1 co-localisation with TLR4 in rat and human cells. Furthermore, proximity ligation assays confirmed spike S1 and TLR4 binding in human and rat cells. Spike S1/IFN-{gamma} treatment of THP-1-derived macrophages induced pro-inflammatory M1 polarisation as shown by an increase in IL-1-{beta} and IL-6 mRNA. Conclusions: These results confirm that TLR4 is activated by the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein S1 domain and therefore TLR4 may be a receptor/accessory factor for the virus. By binding to and activating TLR4, spike S1 caused upregulation of ACE2, which may facilitate viral entry into cells. In addition, pro-inflammatory M1 macrophage polarisation via TLR4 activation, links TLR4 activation by spike S1 to inflammation. The clinical trial testing of CLI-095 (Resatorvid) and other TLR4 antagonists in severe COVID-19, to reduce both viral entry into cells and hyperinflammation, is warranted. Our findings likely represent an important development in COVID-19 pathophysiology and treatment, particularly regarding cardiac complications and the role of macrophages.