In-Depth: Study confirms why COVID-19 causes complications across the body

Spike proteins play larger role than once thought
Coronavirus particles
Posted at 5:27 PM, May 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-08 17:08:55-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- From kidney failure to heart damage to strokes, COVID-19 can cause a wide range of complications from head to toe. New research from a team of scientists at the Salk Institute in La Jolla helps explain why.

The study published in Circulation Research confirms the virus attacks the cells lining blood vessels. Since blood vessels feed every organ, these vascular endothelial cells give the virus a foothold to launch assaults across the body.

The researchers’ primary finding, however, is that the infamous spikes coating SARS-CoV-2 play a larger role in the disease than once thought.

“The spike protein alone does damage,” said Uri Manor, an assistant research professor and co-author of the study.

Scientists have known for a while that the coronavirus's distinctive spike proteins allow it to unlock and enter cells, but the Salk researchers documented how the proteins themselves cause damage to the cells when they bind to a receptor on the surface.

“It causes this massive change in cellular signaling that ultimately causes damage to their mitochondria,” Manor said.

Mitochondria are the power supply inside cells. Damaging them can lead to long-term effects, Manor said.

Mitochondria are “a major signaling hub for the cell that’s involved in inflammation, in aging and telling the cells when to die and when to live,” he said.

The researchers uncovered the impact of the spike protein by building a fake virus known as a pseudovirus. The particle was coated with spike proteins but could not replicate like a virus.

Then, the team exposed hamsters to the pseudovirus and conducted other experiments on cell cultures. The pseudovirus approach let the researchers isolate the impact of the spike protein, Manor said.

“What we were trying to do was simulate what could be happening in the body during a massive COVID infection,” Manor said. “What we saw was that the spike protein binding to ACE-2 receptor results in mitochondrial damage.”

This was the first study to show that the spike proteins alone can damage mitochondria and could help spark new research on more effective therapies, according to the institute.