Coronavirus affects heart and alters gene activity of cells

Effects still unclear, new study by UKE researchers finds
17 July 2020
Test tube

The coronavirus can multiply in heart cells and alter the gene activity of infected cells, a new study by researchers at the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf has found, a press release said Friday (July 10, 2020). Thirty-nine deceased heart patients, who contracted SARS-CoV-2, were examined for the study led by Prof. Dr. Dirk Westermann from the Department of Cardiology at UKE's Institute of Forensic Medicine. 

Coronavirus multiplies in heart tissue

"Until now, it was not known whether SARS-CoV-2 affects and proliferates in heart cells and causes pathological changes there. The results of the study give us far more clarity," said Westermann. The coronavirus was detected in the heart tissue of about two-thirds of the patients examined. Examinations of five patients showed that the virus reproduces in the cells in question.

Long-term consequences of altered gene activity 

The scientists also took a closer look at the activity of six inflammation-promoting genes. Gene activity was significantly increased in 16 patients with the highest amount of the virus. This normally indicates heart muscle inflammation. However, the typical characteristics of such an inflammation were missing. Although the altered gene activity caused by the infection may have long-term health consequences,  the effects are not yet conclusive. Mass screenings of living COVID-19 patients are needed to answer this question. 

Study of typical COVID-19 patients

The deceased patients examined for the study (23 women, 16 men) were 85 years old on average. All of them had developed the pneumonia typical of COVID-19 during their lifetime. "The patients represent the typical COVID-19 patients with age-related, pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure and coronary heart disease in Germany," said Prof. Dr. Stefan Blankenberg, co-author of the study and Medical Director of the University Heart and Vascular Center.