Chronic lung diseases that damage airway cells “prime” patient for severe COVID infection

image of pathogenic viruses causing infection in host organism

Airway cells from patients with chronic lung diseases are “primed” for infection by coronavirus, resulting in more severe symptoms, poorer outcomes, and a greater likelihood of death, according to a study published in Nature Communications.

The study details the genetic changes caused by chronic lung disease in the molecular makeup of a variety of cells, including the epithelial cells that line the lung and airways. These genetic changes can help enable the virus that causes COVID-19 to enter the body, replicate, and trigger an out-of-control immune response that fills the lungs with fluids. The damage to the lungs often results in patients needing respirators and lengthy hospitalizations.

Researchers used a genomic approach called single-cell RNA sequencing technology to spell out the genetic code of more than 600,000 cells from various data bases, representing those with both healthy (control) lungs and those with chronic lung disease. Sequencing and analysis allowed researchers to identify molecular characteristics that may account for worse COVID-19 outcomes.

In addition, older-age, male-gender, smoking, and co-morbidities such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, are all risk factors for COVID-19 that are exacerbated by chronic lung diseases, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Interstitial Lung Disease, and especially Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a progressive scaring and stiffening of the lung tissue. The study was funded by NHLBI.