COVID-19 update: MIT researchers discover cells targeted by the disease

A team of researchers conducted a study which utilized existing datasets about RNA. Results yield to the discovery of various cells that are targeted by the COVID-19 virus.

Covid-19 has caused an immense impact to the entire world. The disease has taken thousands of lives and will continue to do so without the discovery of a cure.

Hence, several laboratories around the globe have performed large-scale studies. These researchers aim to discover potential information that could lead to the cure for this disease.

Similarly, a team of researchers from MIT conducted a scientific inquiry. They were able to unveil specific cells in the body that are targeted by the coronavirus. The outcome of their study is considered as a huge leap in the field of Science as it can likely aid in the search for finding a cure.

Existing datasets were utilized in the study

The team utilized existing data on RNA found in different types of cells. This information has lead them to discover the proteins which help the SARS-CoV-2 virus, commonly known as coronavirus, infiltrate the human cells.

Not long after the coronavirus outbreak began, scientists identified a viral “spike” protein which binds to a certain receptor on human cells. This was called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2.

Another human protein, an enzyme known as TMPRSS2, helps to activate the spike protein, ACE2. MIT explained that when TMPRSS2 successfully activates ACE2, the aforementioned spike protein will enable the SARS-CoV-2 virus to enter the human cell.

As soon as the team realized the role of the proteins, ACE2 and TMPRSS2, they tracked down the location of those genes using their existing datasets. The datasets that the researchers employed in the study included hundreds of cell types from the lungs, nasal passages, and intestine .

The researchers chose those organs for the Covid-19 study because previous evidence had indicated that the virus can infect each of them. Consequently, they compared their results to cell types from unaffected organs.

The inquiry unveiled cells targeted by coronavirus

In the nasal passages, the researchers found that goblet secretory cells express RNAs for both of the proteins that SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect cells. These are cells that enable production of mucus.

In the lungs, they determined the same thing mainly in type II pneumocytes, cells which line the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs and are responsible for keeping them open.

Meanwhile, in the intestines, they discovered that cells called absorptive enterocytes express the RNAs for these two proteins more than any other intestinal cell type. Enterocytes are responsible for the absorption of some nutrients in the intestines.

A surprising discovery: Interferon’s complex role

The researchers came upon the fact that the spike protein , ACE2, is correlated to interferon’s activation of genes.  Interferon helps to fight off infection by interfering with viral replication and helping to activate immune cells.

The finding suggests that coronavirus may have evolved to take advantage of host cells’ natural defenses, hijacking some proteins for their own use. MIT team imply that interferon’s potential role in fighting Covid-19 may be complex.

On one hand, it can stimulate genes that fight off infection or help cells survive damage, but on the other hand, it may provide extra targets that help the virus infect more cells.

Conclusively, the researchers hope their findings will be helpful to scientists working on developing treatments, or to those testing existing drugs that could be repurposed for Covid-19.

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