Scientists think they’ve established in a preliminary study why heart damage is so common in patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
The new research has found that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus spike protein is able to cause heart muscle damage through the inflammatory process, setting it apart from previously known coronaviruses.
The good news is that preliminary research suggests that the damage caused by the process, which is part of heart muscle cells’ “own natural immune machinery,” can be reduced by vaccination.
Research published in 2020 found abnormal changes in the way the heart pumped in 55% of hospitalized patients, with about one in seven showing signs of severe dysfunction.
“From the clinical side, it is already known that COVID-19 infection can cause heart injury, but what we don’t know are the mechanistic details of how this happens,” said Dr. Zhiqiang Lin.
“What we suspect is that the spike protein has unknown pathological roles,” added Dr. Lin, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the Masonic Medical Research Institute in Utica, New York.
“Our data shows that the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 causes damage to the heart muscle. That’s why it’s important to get vaccinated and prevent this disease,” added Dr. Lin.
The first line of defense against the invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen is natural immunity, and cardiomyocytes have their own immune machinery – but in the case of COVID-19 infections, the immune response “can also impair cardiomyocyte function and even lead to cell death and heart failure,” said Dr. Lin.
They studied another coronavirus known as HCoV-NL63, which has a similar spike protein that also binds to the cell receptor ACE2 to help break the virus into cells.
But unlike SARS-CoV-2, the NL63 spike protein doesn’t trigger the natural immune response in heart muscle cells that can cause so much organ damage.
US hospital rejects man for heart transplant because he is not vaccinated
UK COVID infections rise again to nearly 3.8 million, figures show
“The fact that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein activates the natural immune response may explain the high virulence compared to the other coronaviruses,” said Dr. lin.
During lab tests of heart cells grown in dishes, the researchers observed how the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein made heart muscle cells much larger compared to cells without spike protein.
“We found direct evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is toxic to heart muscle cells,” explains Dr. Lin.
But the researchers caution that the mechanisms they’ve uncovered for how the virus causes damage may not be the whole picture — and more questions need to be answered.