Why is COVID causing vascular damage? Israeli study offers answers

TAU researchers identify 5 of the 29 proteins in virus that attack blood vessels.

COVID-19 is seen in a blood vessel (Illustrative). (photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
COVID-19 is seen in a blood vessel (Illustrative).
(photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

One of the challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the multitude of symptoms and long-term consequences the disease causes to infected individuals.

Among other symptoms, some COVID-19 patients have suffered from severe vascular damage, with physicians unable to understand what mechanism triggered this particular complication.

Now, a team of Tel Aviv University researchers have identified the five proteins of the 29 that form the virus which are responsible for damaging blood vessels.

“We see a very high incidence of vascular disease and blood clotting, for example, stroke and heart attack among COVID patients,” says Dr. Ben Maoz, lead author of the study published in the journal eLife.

“We tend to think of COVID as primarily a respiratory disease but the truth is that coronavirus patients are up to three times more likely to have a stroke or heart attack,” he added. “All the evidence shows that the virus severely damages the blood vessels or the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels. However, to this day, the virus has been treated as one entity. We wanted to find out which proteins in the virus are responsible for this type of damage.”

Tel Aviv University. (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)Tel Aviv University. (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)

The study was conducted by experts from many fields including neuroscience and computer science.

The researchers inserted different RNA sequences from the virus’s proteins in human blood vessel cells in the lab to identify their reaction.

“When the coronavirus enters the body, it begins to produce 29 proteins, a new virus is formed, then that virus produces 29 new proteins, and so on,” Maoz said. “In this process, our blood vessels turn from opaque tubes into kind of permeable nets or pieces of cloth, and in parallel there is an increase in blood clotting. We thoroughly examined the effect of each of the 29 proteins expressed by the virus, and were successful in identifying the five specific proteins that cause the greatest damage to endothelial cells and hence to vascular stability and function.”

The group also employed a computational model to verify which coronavirus proteins would have the greatest effect on other tissues, without conducting the relevant experiments in the lab.

The hope is that as the mechanism that causes vascular damage is revealed, the information will be used to develop a treatment to solve the problem.

“Our research could help find targets for a drug that will be used to stop the virus’s activity, or at least minimize damage to blood vessels.”