The SARS-CoV-2 virus can infect cardiac pacemaker cells, causing the cells to undergo self-destruct by ferroptosis according to a preclinical study reported in Circulation Research. This may explain the heart arrhythmias that are commonly observed in COVID patients.
In the study, the researchers used an animal model as well as human stem cell-derived pacemaker cells to show that SARS-CoV-2 can readily infect pacemaker cells and trigger a process called ferroptosis, where cells self-destruct, releasing damaging reactive oxygen molecules.
“This is a surprising and apparently unique vulnerability of these cells — we looked at a variety of other human cell types that can be infected by SARS-CoV-2, including even heart muscle cells, but found signs of ferroptosis only in the pacemaker cells,” said study co-senior author Professor Shuibing Chen.
Arrhythmias, including tachycardia and bradycardia, has been observed in some COVID patients, and multiple studies link these arrhythmias to worse COVID outcomes. But how the coronavirus caused these remained unclear.
In the new study, the researchers examined golden hamsters (one of the only lab animals that reliably develops COVID-like signs from SARS-CoV-2 infection) and found evidence that following nasal exposure, the virus can infect the sinoatrial node, which is the natural cardiac pacemaker.
The researchers then induced human embryonic stem cells to mature into cells closely resembling sinoatrial node cells. They showed that these induced human pacemaker cells can be infected by SARS-CoV-2 as they express ACE2 receptors. Large increases in inflammatory immune gene activity were also seen in the infected cells.
The team’s most surprising finding, however, was that the pacemaker cells, in response to the stress of infection, showed clear signs of a cellular self-destruct process called ferroptosis, which involves accumulation of iron and the runaway production of reactive oxygen molecules. The scientists were able to reverse these signs in the cells using compounds that are known to bind iron and inhibit ferroptosis.
“This finding suggests that some of the cardiac arrhythmias detected in COVID patients could be caused by ferroptosis damage to the sinoatrial node,” said co-senior author Dr Robert Schwartz
While COVID patients could in principle be treated with ferroptosis inhibitors specifically to protect sinoatrial node cells, antiviral drugs that block the effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection in all cell types would be preferable, the researchers said.
The researchers plan to continue to use their cell and animal models to investigate sinoatrial node damage in COVID and other settings.
“There are other human sinoatrial arrhythmia syndromes we could model with our platform,” said co-senior author Dr. Todd Evans. “And, although physicians currently can use an artificial electronic pacemaker to replace the function of a damaged sinoatrial node, there’s the potential here to use sinoatrial cells such as we’ve developed as an alternative, cell-based pacemaker therapy.”
Source: Weill Cornell Medicine