Five New Insights in the Fight Against COVID-19 (Medicine)

Researchers announce new findings on treatments, health impacts and repercussions for science education

Scientists from around the world are gathering to share the latest research at the forefront of biology during the Experimental Biology (EB) 2021 meeting. Many sessions focus on the year’s most pressing priorities in bioscience: COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2. Here are five highlights:

Legacy of COVID-19 in blood vessels may raise risk of heart disease

A study from the Medical College of Wisconsin suggests COVID-19 could cause long-term problems with the functioning of blood vessels, potentially increasing the risk of heart disease. Scientists examined arterioles, small branches of the cardiovascular system, in tissue samples from 14 people who had recovered from COVID-19 and 19 who had never had COVID-19. Arterioles regulate the flow of oxygen-rich blood to tissues by widening (dilating) and narrowing according to the body’s needs at each moment. When exposed to stimuli (like chemicals or flow) that cause blood vessels to dilate, the arterioles from COVID-19 patients did not widen nearly as much as those from people without COVID-19. This effect was attributed to impaired functioning of the endothelium, the lining of the blood vessels. The effect was most pronounced in samples from people who had COVID-19 less than three months earlier; endothelium functioning was still impaired but closer to normal by eight months after infection. Over time, endothelial dysfunction in the blood vessels can lead to several forms of heart disease.

This figure compares time-dependent effects of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection. Maximal flow-mediated vasodilation (FMD) was significantly impaired at < 3 months post infection. Whereas at 8-12 months, endothelial function began to normalize but remain impaired compared to control subjects (CTRL) who had never had COVID-19. *P<0.05 vs CTRL. © Yoshinori Nishijima, Andres Beyer

Yoshinori Nishijima will present this research online from 11:15-11:30 a.m. Thursday, April 29 (abstract). Images available.

Promising leads in the search for COVID-19 treatments

While vaccines are critical to curbing the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a need for better treatments to improve the outlook for those who become infected. Research from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center suggests drugs that inhibit a key enzyme in the SARS-CoV-2 virus could offer promising leads for an antiviral treatment. In experiments using cell cultures, the researchers found that three naturally occurring compounds significantly reduced the activity of the SARS-CoV-2 main protease, an enzyme the virus uses to replicate. The research team was able to trace how two of the compounds, phebestin and probestin, inhibit the main protease at the molecular level. They also found that these compounds did not harm mouse cells from the lining of the lungs, a test used to screen for safety concerns associated with delivering medicines through the nose. Based on these findings, the researchers say the compounds, which are members of a class of molecules called peptidic ?-hydroxy amides, warrant further study as potential antiviral drugs for COVID-19.

Phebestin interacting with SARS-COV-2 main protease. © Yarla et al., University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center

Nagendra Yarla will present this research online on-demand from April 27-30 (abstract). Images available.

Molecules found in stem cells could calm COVID-19 cytokine storm

Treatment options are currently limited for patients with COVID-19 who suffer an excessive immune response known as a cytokine storm, which causes life-threatening damage to organs and tissues. Research led by the Houston Methodist Research Institute demonstrates that stem cells isolated from amniotic fluid contain several molecules that might be able to help counter a cytokine storm. Unlike embryonic stem cells, these cells are routinely collected to test amniotic fluid during prenatal diagnosis, without harm to the mother or fetus. Researchers found that the amniotic stem cells contained molecules involved in communicating with immune cells, regulating immunity and inflammation, protecting and repairing the lining of the lungs and maintaining a healthy heart. The study suggests mesenchymal stem cells from amniotic fluid, which have previously been explored as a therapy for other conditions, could offer a new option for treating the severe and chronic inflammation resulting from COVID-19 infection.

Salvatore Vaiasicca will present this research online from 2:45-3 p.m. Wednesday, April 28 (abstract).

Expert roundtable: Toward understanding and containing the COVID-19 pandemic

Researchers will present a series of lightning talks on the mechanisms underlying COVID-19 infections along with updates on current and emerging treatments and vaccines. Topics include SARS-CoV-2 variants and genomic analysis; autopsy-derived insights into the pathobiology of COVID-19; the race for a vaccine; and mitigating COVID-19 in meat and poultry processing plants.

The session will be held online from 2-5 p.m. on Friday, April 30, and include a live Q&A with experts (more information).

How COVID-19 changed practices for science education

How did science educators and students adjust to constraints on in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic? A survey of educators in anatomy — a field with a strong emphasis on in-person, hands-on learning — sheds light on changing practices. Researchers from 10 universities across the U.S. and Canada conducted two surveys of anatomy educators in 2020. The first survey collected 67 responses from May through August, and the second collected 191 responses from August to December, reflecting the summer and fall terms, respectively. Respondents reported a drastic reduction of in-person lectures while remote instruction increased; they also reduced the use of cadavers and increased the use of other laboratory teaching materials, such as digital and virtual anatomical technology. These changes were most pronounced early in the pandemic. During the final months of 2020, respondents reported greater use of in-person teaching and use of cadavers, though these practices were still diminished and varied by institution compared with prepandemic levels. The researchers suggest further study can help elucidate whether these trends may represent long-term changes for anatomy education.

Derek Harmon will present this research online in poster R2047 (abstract). Images available.

EB 2021 is the premiere annual meeting of five scientific societies to be held online April 27-30, 2021. Contact the media team for more information or to obtain a free press pass to attend the virtual meeting.

Featured image: Laboratory time using cadaver, plastic, and other teaching modalities  © Harmon DJ, Attardi SM, Barremkala M, Bentley DC, Brown KM, Dennis JF, Goldman HM, Harrell KM, Klein BA, Ramnanan CJ, Richtsmeier JT, Farkas GJ. 2021. An Analysis of anatomy education before and during Covid?19: May?August 2020. Anat Sci Educ 14:132-147


Provided by Experimental Biology

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