University of Queensland researchers have discovered how COVID-19 damages the heart, opening the door to the future treatments.
This initial study – featuring a small cohort – found that COVID-19 had damaged heart tissue DNA, which was not detected in flu samples.
Researcher at the UQ Diamantina Institute Dr Arutha Kulasinghe said the team found that COVID-19 and influenza were both serious respiratory viruses, but they seemed to affect heart tissue very differently.
Compared to the 2009 flu pandemic, COVID led to more severe and long-term cardiovascular disease, but what caused it at the molecular level was not known.
During our study, we could not detect virus particles in heart tissue from COVID-19 patients, but we found tissue changes associated with DNA damage and repair.
DNA damage and repair mechanisms promote genomic instability and are linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, atherosclerosis and neurodegenerative disorders, so it is important to understand why this occurs in COVID-19 patients.
Dr Arutha Kulasinghe, Researcher, UQ Diamantina Institute
Data associated with the impact of COVID on the heart has previously been limited to blood biomarkers and physiological measurements, as obtaining cardiac biopsy specimens is invasive.
This study was able to gain deeper insights using actual heart tissue collected during autopsies of seven COVID patients from Brazil, two people who died of influenza, and six control patients.
UQ Professor John Fraser, who created the International COVID-19 Critical Care Consortium, said the results provided insight into the impact of COVID-19 on the body compared to other respiratory viruses.
“When we looked at the heart tissue samples from the flu, we identified that they were causing excessive inflammation,” Prof Fraser said.
“While we found that COVID-19 attacks the DNA of the heart – probably directly and not just as a knock-on effect on inflammation.
“Our study highlighted that the two viruses seem to affect heart tissue very differently, which we want to better understand in larger cohort studies.
“What we have categorically shown is that COVID is not ‘like the flu’.
“This study helps us understand how COVID-19 is affecting this heart, and it’s the first step in determining which treatments might be best for repairing this heart.”
The international team included UQ Dr. Fernando Guimaraes, Professor Gabrielle Belz and Dr Kirsty Short, Ning Liu and researchers from WEHI, as well as the Critical Care Research Group at Prince Charles Hospital.
The research has been published in Immunology.
The University of Queensland
Kulasinghe, A., et al. (2022) Transcriptomic profiling of heart tissue from SARS-CoV-2 patients identifies DNA damage. Immunology. doi.org/10.1111/imm.13577.