The spike protein found on the surface of Covid-19 virus cells causes changes to cells in the small blood vessels of the heart, according to research we funded presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress.
Researchers from the University of Bristol have found that the spike protein binds to cells called pericytes which line the small vessels of the heart. This binding triggers a cascade of changes which disrupt normal cell function, and lead to the release of chemicals that cause inflammation. This happened even when the protein was no-longer attached to the virus.
There is some previous evidence to suggest that the spike protein can remain in the blood stream after the virus has gone and travel far from the site of infection. In this study, researchers only studied pericytes from the small blood vessels within the heart. However, pericytes are found within small blood vessels all over the body, including in the brain and central nervous system. This latest finding may start to help explain the effect of the virus on organs away from the site of the Covid-19 infection.
Researchers took small vessel cells from the heart and exposed them to the spike protein. They found that the spike protein alone was enough to disrupt normal cell function, and lead to the release of chemicals that cause inflammation.
They then blocked the CD147 receptor and found that this prevented the spike protein from causing some of the changes to the cells. However, the inflammation continued. Now the researchers hope to find out if a drug blocking CD147 in humans can help to protect people from some of the complications arising from Covid-19.
Professor James Leiper, our Associate Medical Director, said:
“Covid-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for the cardiovascular research community. There is still a lot that is unknown relating to how the virus can impact our health in the long term, but this research brings us one step closer to better understanding how Covid-19 affects the heart and circulatory system and may ultimately lead to new ways to protect the heart.