Published on Sun Jun 20 2021

Selectively expressing SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein S1 subunit in cardiomyocytes induces cardiac hypertrophy in mice.

Negron, S. G., Kessinger, C. W., Xu, B., Pu, W. T., Lin, Z.

Cardiac injury is common in hospitalized COVID-19 patients and portends poorer prognosis and higher mortality. To better understand how SARS-CoV-2 damages the heart, it is critical to elucidate the biology of CoV- 2 encoded proteins, each of which may play multiple pathological roles.

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Abstract

Cardiac injury is common in hospitalized COVID-19 patients and portends poorer prognosis and higher mortality. To better understand how SARS-CoV-2 (CoV-2) damages the heart, it is critical to elucidate the biology of CoV-2 encoded proteins, each of which may play multiple pathological roles. For example, CoV-2 Spike glycoprotein (CoV-2-S) not only engages ACE2 to mediate virus infection, but also directly impairs endothelial function and can trigger innate immune responses in cultured murine macrophages. Here we tested the hypothesis that CoV-2-S damages the heart by activating cardiomyocyte (CM) innate immune responses. HCoV-NL63 is another human coronavirus with a Spike protein (NL63-S) that also engages ACE2 for virus entry but is known to only cause moderate respiratory symptoms. We found that CoV-2-S and not NL63-S interacted with Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4), a crucial pattern recognition receptor that responsible for detecting pathogen and initiating innate immune responses. Our data show that the S1 subunit of CoV-2-S (CoV-2-S1) interacts with the extracellular leucine rich repeats-containing domain of TLR4 and activates NF-kB. To investigate the possible pathological role of CoV-2-S1 in the heart, we generated a construct that expresses membrane-localized CoV-2-S1 (S1-TM). AAV9-mediated, selective expression of the S1-TM in CMs caused heart dysfunction, induced hypertrophic remodeling, and elicited cardiac inflammation. Since CoV-2-S does not interact with murine ACE2, our study presents a novel ACE2-independent pathological role of CoV-2-S, and suggests that the circulating CoV-2-S1 is a TLR4-recognizable alarmin that may harm the CMs by triggering their innate immune responses.