Study Finds COVID Alters Airway Cell Genes Long Term



COVID-19 long haulers might be experiencing long-term changes to their genes in their airway cells, according to a new study.

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein showed the changes in gene expression in the airway cells of long haulers, according to experimental biology researcher Nicholas Evans, who will present his study’s findings at a virtual meeting Friday.

The long-hauler symptoms of shortness of breath and dizziness can be a result of the long-term changes in the cells even after recovering from the disease.

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

Researchers found cultured human airway cells exposed to both low and high concentrations of purified spike protein showed differences in gene expression that remained even after the cells recovered from the exposure. The top genes included ones related to inflammatory response.

“Our work helps to elucidate changes occurring in patients on the genetic level, which could eventually provide insight into which treatments would work best for specific patients,” Evans said.

The researchers also compared their cultured human airway cells to studies from others where cells were collected from patients with COVID-19 infection. They were able to confirm the optimized cell culture approach reflected what occurs in patients, making it useful for future translational studies. They plan to use the new approach to better understand how long the genetic changes last and the potential long-term consequences of these changes in relation to long-haul COVID-19 cases.


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