An international team of scientists has carried out a detailed study of cells in the body that the new coronavirus appears to target. Their findings will hopefully assist in the quest to find a treatment.

The study, published in the scientific journal Cell, shows that on-going infection with another virus may make it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to infect cells in the lung. In order to infect humans, SARS-CoV-2 binds to two proteins expressed in the surface of the epithelial cells, the specialized cells that line the surface of the lung. In this paper, the authors show that infection with HIV or influenza, two quite different viruses, causes epithelial cells to make more of these proteins, which make it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to infect the body.

The research was led by a team of scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in collaboration with colleagues from around the world, including at Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI). For the study, they used single cell sequencing technology, and tapped into massive global datasets of human, non-human primate and mouse cells.

AHRI’s specific contribution to the research was to investigate which cells in the human lung can be infected by SARS-CoV-2, and how infection with HIV may impact this. Through a unique and longstanding collaboration with surgeons and patients at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Thoracic Surgery Unit at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, AHRI researchers have access to samples of surgically removed lung tissue. They usually use these samples to examine the immune response in the lung in the context of TB infection. For this study AHRI PhD student and co-lead author on the paper, Ian Mbano, generated data from the samples to show which cells in the human lung can be infected by SARS-CoV-2, and what happens to them in people who are infected with HIV.

“This study is important because it shows how and why HIV infected individuals might be more at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said Dr Al Leslie, AHRI Faculty Member and co-author on the paper. “However, it also tells us that effective control of HIV with ART is likely to minimise any increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection. It is sometimes hard to translate scientific research into immediate action, but in this case the message is very clear: know your HIV status, and if you are living with HIV – stick with your treatment.”

Read the paper here.

(Top photo l-r: Dr Al Leslie and Ian Mbano)