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  • Writer's pictureDr. Clifford Brown

How lung distress from SARS-CoV-2 can cause heart damage

At a Glance

  • Researchers found that SARS-CoV-2 can damage heart tissue without directly infecting it.

  • The findings suggest potential approaches for protecting the heart during SARS-CoV-2 and other viral infections.

The study yielded new insights into how SARS-CoV-2 can damage the heart.Kateryna Kon / Shutterstock

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can trigger a life-threatening condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), in which fluid leaks into the lungs and prevents oxygen from passing into the body. Other complications of COVID-19 include systemic inflammation and cardiovascular complications.

Previous studies have found changes in the makeup of lung immune cells in patients with COVID-19. But it isn’t clear if COVID-19 causes similar changes to immune cells in heart tissue. Nor is it clear if such changes help contribute to cardiovascular complications.

An NIH-funded research team, led by Dr. Matthias Nahrendorf at Massachusetts General Hospital and Dr. Jana Grune at the German Heart Center at Charité in Berlin, investigated how ARDS-associated immune signals affect heart tissue and cardiovascular health. The study appeared in the journal Circulation on March 20, 2024.

The results suggest that SARS-CoV-2 increases the inflammatory share of macrophages in the heart, leading to heart damage. This change appears to result from the immune response to lung injury rather than from viral infection of the heart itself. Targeting pro-inflammatory heart macrophages might thus relieve the cardiovascular complications of SARS-CoV-2. Dialing back the body’s immune response might also be an effective treatment.

“These findings can also be applied more generally,” Nahrendorf notes, “as our results suggest that any severe infection can send shockwaves through the whole body.”

—by Brian Doctrow, Ph.D.

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