Lead
Shortness of breath and lung damage are key symptoms of severe COVID-19 disease. Many patients also simultaneously experience cardiovascular disease, kidney failure and central nervous system (CNS) disorders. As yet, however, too little is known about the mechanisms underlying the long-term damage caused by COVID-19.

Lay summary

Background

Damage to the cardiovascular system is a significant determining factor of mortality rates among COVID-19 patients. To understand the connections between cardiovascular disease and COVID-19, it is important to elucidate the mechanisms underlying SARS-CoV-2 infection in the cells of the vascular wall. SARS-CoV-2’s key point of entry is a molecule called ACE2, which is found in vascular wall cells in all organs, including the blood-brain barrier and heart muscles. Knowing which cells can be directly infected with SARS-CoV-2 is key to characterising various clinical symptoms and developing new treatments.

Research aims

We will use cell cultures to investigate the effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection in vascular wall cells, including cells in the blood-brain barrier and heart muscles. Once these cells have been infected, we will use gene expression profiling to investigate the immune system’s inflammatory response and virus-induced changes. The more complex effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection that affect the entire body will be researched in zebra fish and mice. Animal experiments will enable us to investigate the entire cardiovascular system and gain a better understanding of COVID-19.

Expected results and envisaged products

The aim of our project is to identify the signal paths that are activated in cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection and to characterise the effects of infection on vessel walls, including the walls of cells in the blood-brain barrier and heart. Our animal models will improve our understanding of the course of the disease and demonstrate the impact of COVID-19 on heart function and its long-term effects on the vascular system. The findings will contribute to efforts to provide specific treatment for excessive inflammation, vascular occlusion and neurological symptoms such as memory disorders and fatigue.

Specific contribution to tackle the current pandemic

Cardiovascular experts from the University of Bern will partner with the world’s leading coronavirus research teams to work on this project. Our approach employs established methods that will enable us to elucidate both the specific and overarching changes in the body’s cells induced by SARS-CoV-2. By doing so, we hope to identify entry points that will pave the way for improved treatment of COVID-19 and effective prevention of lasting damage to the cardiovascular and nervous systems.