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According to an preprint study the coronavirus may be a threat to fat cells and immune cell types within the body fat. This could cause major damage.
The study could explain why people who are obese or overweight are more likely to suffer from serious illness and death due to COVID-19. The study hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal, however it sheds light on the reasons that some patients are more vulnerable even if they do not have any other risks or conditions.
“The main point is “Oh my God it’s true that the virus can directly infect fat cells,’ ” Philipp Scherer, PhD scientist who studies fat cells at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, told The New York Times.
“Whatever happens to fat doesn’t stay there,” he said. It also affects the surrounding tissues.
In the study researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine studied fat tissue samples from bariatric surgery patients to understand whether they could be infected with the coronavirus. They looked at different types of cells: Adipocytes (or fat cells) and preadipocytes which can become fat cells and immune cells called adipose tissue microphages.
Researchers discovered that adipocytes can become infected but they don’t become too inflamed. However certain macrophages from the immune system may be infected and could cause a major inflammatory response. Beyond that, the pre-adipocytes weren’t infected, but they did contribute to the inflammation.
Researchers also examined the fat tissue of patients from Europe who died from COVID-19. They found coronavirus in fat surrounding various organs, including their heart and the intestines. They believed that this might be related to the damage to organs that are seen in the cases of severe COVID-19.
The coronavirus appears to evade the body’s defenses against infection and “hang out” in fat tissue, allowing it to multiply and cause a severe immune response, David Kass, MD, professor of cardiology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told the Times.
“If you truly are overweight, then fat is the largest single organ in your body,” he said.
The coronavirus “can infect that tissue and even reside there,” he continued. “Whether it causes harm or kills it, at the very least, it’s a location to amplify it It doesn’t matter. It becomes an accumulator.”
The body fat of the infected person could contribute to “long COVID,” which has led to symptoms that can last for weeks or even months after a person has recovered from a coronavirus infection, the study authors wrote.
The research could lead to the development of for COVID-19 treatments that target body fat, they claimed. Drugs that reduce inflammation of the adipose tissues in obese patients could help COVID-19 patients, they said.
The Times reported that the study could confirm that health care professionals should take into account the patient’s body fat and weight when administering COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
“This paper is another alarm for the medical profession and public health to examine more deeply into the problems of obese and overweight individuals and the treatments and vaccines we’re offering them,” Barry Popkin, PhD, an obesity researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched COVID-19’s risks for overweight and obese patients, told the paper.
He said, “We keep documenting their risk, but we haven’t tackled it.”
BioRxiv: “SARS-CoV-2 infects human fat tissue and triggers an inflammatory response consistent with severe COVID-19.”
The New York Times The New York Times “The Coronavirus Attacks Fat Tissue,” Scientists Discover.
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