Computer model shows how COVID-19 could lead to runaway inflammation

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IMAGE: Distinguished professor and John K. Vries Chair of computational and systems biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
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Credit: Serkan Eldeleklio?lu

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 29, 2020 – A study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Cedars-Sinai addresses a mystery first raised in March: Why do some people with COVID-19 develop severe inflammation? The research shows how the molecular structure and sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein–part of the virus that causes COVID-19–could be behind the inflammatory syndrome cropping up in infected patients.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses computational modeling to zero in on a part of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that may act as a “superantigen,” kicking the immune system into overdrive as in toxic shock syndrome–a rare, life-threatening complication of bacterial infections.

Symptoms of a newly identified condition in pediatric COVID-19 patients, known as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), include persistent fever and severe inflammation that can affect a host of bodily systems. While rare, the syndrome can be serious or even fatal.

The first reports of this condition coming out of Europe caught the attention of study co-senior author Moshe Arditi, M.D., director of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology Division at Cedars-Sinai and an expert on another pediatric inflammatory disease–Kawasaki disease.

Arditi contacted his long-time collaborator, Ivet Bahar, Ph.D., distinguished professor and John K. Vries Chair of computational and systems biology at Pitt School of Medicine, and the two started searching for features of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that might be responsible for MIS-C.

Bahar and her team created a computer model of the interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 viral spike protein and the receptors on human T cells, the foot soldiers of the immune system. Under normal circumstances, T cells help the body fight off infection, but when these cells are activated in abnormally large quantities, as is the case with superantigens, they produce massive amounts of inflammatory cytokines–small proteins involved in immune system signaling–in what’s known as a “cytokine storm.”

Using this computer model, the team was able to see that a specific region on the spike protein with superantigenic features interacts with T cells. Then, they compared this region to a bacterial protein that causes toxic shock syndrome and found striking similarities in both sequence and structure. Importantly, the proposed SARS-CoV-2 superantigen showed a high affinity for binding T cell receptors–the first step toward touching off a runaway immune response.

“Everything came one after another, each time a huge surprise. The pieces of the puzzle ended up fitting extremely well,” said Bahar, co-senior author on the study.

By finding protein-level similarities between SARS-CoV-2 and the bacterial structure that causes toxic shock syndrome, the researchers said they may have opened up new avenues for treating not only MIS-C patients, but also adults with COVID-19 infection experiencing cytokine storm.

The researchers also collaborated with scientists studying adult COVID-19 patients in Germany and found that those who experienced severe symptoms had a T cell response similar to what is seen in people exposed to superantigens and very different from the T cell response in patients who had only mild symptoms.

“Our research finally begins to unravel the potential mechanisms involved and raises the possibility that therapeutic options for toxic shock syndrome, such as intravenous immunoglobulin and steroids, may be effective for managing and treating MIS-C in children and hyperinflammation in adult coronavirus patients,” said Arditi, professor of pediatrics and biomedical sciences at Cedars-Sinai.

Arditi’s and Bahar’s labs are now using the ideas generated by this study to search for and test antibodies specific to the SARS-CoV-2 superantigen, with the goal of developing therapies that specifically address MIS-C and cytokine storm in COVID-19 patients.

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This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants P41 GM103712 and R01 AI072726), as well as institutional funds.

Additional authors include first author Mary Hongying Cheng, Ph.D., and She Zhang, Ph.D., both at Pitt; Rebecca Porritt, Ph.D., and Magali Noval Rivas, Ph.D., at Cedars-Sinai; and Lisa Paschold, Ph.D., Edith Willscher, M.Sc., and Mascha Binder, M.D., at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.

To read this release online or share it, visit https://www.upmc.com/media/news/092820-bahar-arditi-pnas.

About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

As one of the nation’s leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1998. In rankings recently released by the National Science Foundation, Pitt ranked fifth among all American universities in total federal science and engineering research and development support.

Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region’s economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see http://www.medschool.pitt.edu.

About Cedars-Sinai

Cedars-Sinai is a national leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered healthcare encompassing primary care as well as specialized medicine and conducting research that leads to lifesaving discoveries and innovations. Since its beginning in 1902, Cedars-Sinai has evolved to meet the healthcare needs of one of the most diverse regions in the nation, continually setting new standards in quality and innovation in patient care, research, teaching and community service. Today, Cedars-Sinai is widely known for its national leadership in transforming healthcare for the benefit of patients. Cedars-Sinai impacts the future of healthcare globally by developing new approaches to treatment and educating tomorrow’s physicians and other health professionals. At the same time, Cedars-Sinai demonstrates a longstanding commitment to strengthening the Los Angeles community through wide-ranging programs that improve the health of its most vulnerable residents.

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