Gloved hand holding COVID-19 vaccine in syringe on a background of SARS-CoV-2 particles
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Researchers have used heart and lung stem cells infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to better understand how the disease impacts different organs. Responses varied significantly depending on the cell type, allowing the team to identify effective antiviral drugs to treat infection in these organs specifically, thus paving the way to more targeted treatment.

“… We engineered human stem cells in the lab into lung and heart cells and infected with them with the virus,” said David Elliott, an author of the study and also a principal investigator at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Medicine (reNEW).

“We found the heart and lungs exhibit distinct antiviral and toxicity profiles that could inform better COVID-19 therapies and treat its complications,” he added.

The research was co-led by Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute). The findings were published this week in Stem Cell Reports.

“Our findings highlight the importance of using several cell types for the evaluation of antiviral drugs to determine the best drug combinations for effective treatment of a virus that affects multiple organ systems,” said Elliot.

The World Health Organization reports that there have been approximately 700,000,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide so far and almost seven million deaths from the disease. To date, there are only a few FDA approved drugs for the disease. Researchers are starting to look at more personalized approaches to treatment.

While SARS-CoV-2 primarily infects the respiratory tract, lung and cardiac complications occur in severe cases of COVID-19, said The Royal Melbourne Hospital and professor Kanta Subbarao, Virologist and Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute.

Cardiac complications are observed in up to 78 percent of recovered COVID-19 patients and ongoing myocardial inflammation in 60 percent of patients.

“Although COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe illness and death, antiviral compounds are required for the treatment of COVID-19, particularly with the emergence of variant viruses that evade immunity,” Subbarao added. “To date, only a handful of drugs have been approved for use in hospitalized COVID-19 patients and more are needed.”

The study also looked at approved drugs for treating COVID-19, including Remdesivir and Molnupiravir, with some found to be more effective than others at treating infection in lung and heart stem cells. The researchers identified Alectinib and SPHINX31 as promising antivirals for SARS-CoV-2 in both heart and lung cells.

“We have provided valuable insights into virus-host interactions in tissues that are significantly affected in COVID-19, with implications that will further therapeutic options,” Subbarao said.

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