A deep dive into how the new coronavirus infects cells has found that it orchestrates a hostile takeover of their genes unlike any other known viruses do, producing what one leading scientist calls “unique” and “aberrant” changes.
Recent studies show that in seizing control of genes in the human cells it invades, the virus changes how segments of DNA are read, doing so in a way that might explain why the elderly are more likely to die of Covid-19 and why antiviral drugs might not only save sick patients’ lives but also prevent severe disease if taken before infection.
“It’s something I have never seen in my 20 years of” studying viruses, said virologist Benjamin tenOever of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, referring to how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, hijacks cells’ genomes.
The “something” he and his colleagues saw is how SARS-CoV-2 blocks one virus-fighting set of genes but allows another set to launch, a pattern never seen with other viruses. Influenza and the original SARS virus (in the early 2000s), for instance, interfere with both arms of the body’s immune response — what tenOever dubs “call to arms” genes and “call for reinforcement” genes.
The first group of genes produces interferons. These proteins, which infected cells release, are biological semaphores, signaling to neighboring cells to activate some 500 of their own genes that will slow down the virus’ ability to make millions of copies of itself if it invades them. This lasts seven to 10 days, tenOever said, controlling virus replication and thereby buying time for the second group of genes to act.
This second set of genes produce their own secreted proteins, called chemokines, that emit a biochemical “come here!” alarm. When far-flung antibody-making B cells and virus-killing T cells sense the alarm, they race to its source. If all goes well, the first set of genes holds the virus at bay long enough for the lethal professional killers to arrive and start eradicating viruses.
“Most other viruses interfere with some aspect of both the call to arms and the call for reinforcements,” tenOever said. “If they didn’t, no one would ever get a viral illness”: The one-two punch would pummel any incipient infection into submission.
SARS-CoV-2, however, uniquely blocks one cellular defense but activates the other, he and his colleagues reported in a study published last week in Cell. They studied healthy human lung cells growing in lab dishes, ferrets (which the virus infects easily), and lung cells from Covid-19 patients. In all three, they found that within three days of infection, the virus induces cells’ call-for-reinforcement genes to produce cytokines. But it blocks their call-to-arms genes — the interferons that dampen the virus’ replication.
The result is essentially no brakes on the virus’s replication, but a storm of inflammatory molecules in the lungs, which is what tenOever calls an “unique” and “aberrant” consequence of how SARS-CoV-2 manipulates the genome of its target.
In another new study, scientists in Japan last week identified how SARS-CoV-2 accomplishes that genetic manipulation. Its ORF3b gene produces a protein called a transcription factor that has “strong anti-interferon activity,” Kei Sato of the University of Tokyo and colleagues found — stronger than the original SARS virus or influenza viruses. The protein basically blocks the cell from recognizing that a virus is present, in a way that prevents interferon genes from being expressed.
In fact, the Icahn School team found no interferons in the lung cells of Covid-19 patients. Without interferons, tenOever said, “there is nothing to stop the virus from replicating and festering in the lungs forever.”
That causes lung cells to emit even more “call-for-reinforcement” genes, summoning more and more immune cells. Now the lungs have macrophages and neutrophils and other immune cells “everywhere,” tenOever said, causing such runaway inflammation “that you start having inflammation that induces more inflammation.”
At the same time, unchecked viral replication kills lung cells involved in oxygen exchange. “And suddenly you’re in the hospital in severe respiratory distress,” he said.
In elderly people, as well as those with diabetes, heart disease, and other underlying conditions, the call-to-arms part of the immune system is weaker than in younger, healthier people, even before the coronavirus arrives. That reduces even further the cells’ ability to knock down virus replication with interferons, and imbalances the immune system toward the dangerous inflammatory response.
The discovery that SARS-CoV-2 strongly suppresses infected cells’ production of interferons has raised an intriguing possibility: that taking interferons might prevent severe Covid-19 or even prevent it in the first place, said Vineet Menachery of the University of Texas Medical Branch.
In a study of human cells growing in lab dishes, described in a preprint (not peer-reviewed or published in a journal yet), he and his colleagues also found that SARS-CoV-2 “prevents the vast amount” of interferon genes from turning on. But when cells growing in lab dishes received the interferon IFN-1 before exposure to the coronavirus, “the virus has a difficult time replicating.”
After a few days, the amount of virus in infected but interferon-treated cells was 1,000- to 10,000-fold lower than in infected cells not pre-treated with interferon. (The original SARS virus, in contrast, is insensitive to interferon.)
Ending the pandemic and preventing its return is assumed to require an effective vaccine to prevent infection and antiviral drugs such as remdesivir to treat the very sick, but the genetic studies suggest a third strategy: preventive drugs.
It’s possible that treatment with so-called type-1 interferon “could stop the virus before it could get established,” Menachery said.
Giving drugs to healthy people is always a dicey proposition, since all drugs have side effects — something considered less acceptable than when a drug is used to treat an illness. “Interferon treatment is rife with complications,” Menachery warned. The various interferons, which are prescribed for hepatitis, cancers, and many other diseases, can cause flu-like symptoms.
But the risk-benefit equation might shift, both for individuals and for society, if interferons or antivirals or other medications are shown to reduce the risk of developing serious Covid-19 or even make any infection nearly asymptomatic.
Interferon “would be warning the cells the virus is coming,” Menachery said, so such pretreatment might “allow treated cells to fend off the virus better and limit its spread.” Determining that will of course require clinical trials, which are underway.