Cellular roadmaps predict body's coronavirus vulnerability

September 03, 2020

ITHACA, N.Y. - New research from Cornell University developed potential roadmaps for how the coronavirus infects organs and identifies what molecular factors could help facilitate or restrict infection.

"The data suggest that it's not just a respiratory disease," said lead author Cedric Feschotte, molecular biology professor. "It's much broader than that and has the potential to affect many other organs. Our analyses suggest that there is a wide range of cellular vulnerabilities."

The study maps the expression of 28 human genes dubbed "SCARFs" - SARS-Cov-2 and Coronavirus-Associated Receptors and Factors. By looking at the single-cell RNA expression of these genes, they can predict which tissues and cell types are most vulnerable to coronavirus infection - in both adults and embryos.

The team analyzed the RNA expression of healthy human tissues to develop a comprehensive profile of the molecular factors that both facilitate and restrict SARS-CoV2 infection.

Without the immune system's ability to respond quickly, Feschotte said, naturally occurring restriction factors already present in the tissues represent the body's main line of defense against SARS-CoV-2.

Mapping the different entry points for the virus also is essential for trying to predict where the virus will go after it enters the body. Moreover, by pinpointing the molecular routes of infection, other researchers can use those areas as targets for developing drugs to overcome the infection.

The study indicates alternate entry paths for how the virus could enter the lungs, central nervous system and heart. Their research also supports emerging clinical data that shows SARS-CoV-2 also infects the intestines, kidney and placenta. They noted that specific groups of cells within the prostate and testes are likely to be permissive for SARS-CoV-2 and may help explain male-specific vulnerabilities.

As part of this project, the team also developed an open-access, user-friendly web interface where anyone can look up the single-cell RNA expressions of SCARFs. This will facilitate easy access to data that will help scientists around the world.
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The study, "A Single-Cell RNA Expression Map of Human Coronavirus Entry Factors," published Sept. 3 in Cell Reports.

For more information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

Cornell University

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