Genetic changes could be behind long-term COVID symptoms


Even those with asymptomatic COVID infections could have long-lasting changes in genetic expression which could be behind long-lasting symptoms in recovered patients.


Changes in gene expression caused by the novel coronavirus may be behind long-term symptoms experienced by COVID-19 patients who have recovered, according to a new study by scientists at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is covered in spike proteins that bind with receptors on cells in the body during infection. This begins a process that allows the virus to release its genetic material into the healthy cell.

“We found that exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alone was enough to change baseline gene expression in airway cells,” said Nicholas Evans, a masters student at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, in a press release. “This suggests that symptoms seen in patients may initially result from the spike protein interacting with the cells directly.”


The researchers found that cultured human airway cells exposed to both low and high concentrations of the spike protein showed differences in gene expression that remained even after the cells recovered, including genes related to hypoxia, cell death, inflammatory response and DNA damage, among others.

The findings may indicate that even those with asymptomatic COVID infections could still have long-lasting changes in genetic expression, the researchers found.

The researchers used a new approach to culture the airway cells to more closely simulate the physiological conditions in the lung airway by exposing the cells to air and giving them time to mature into airway cells. The researchers plan to use the new approach to study how long the genetic changes last and the potential long-term consequences of the changes.


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