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Understanding which 'pieces of the virus' cause problems

COVID proteins that trigger strokes and heart attacks identified by Israeli team

Discovery, made through ‘peek in virus’s black box,’ could lead to therapies that halt havoc wrought on vascular system, say Tel Aviv University scientists

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

The coronavirus infecting a blood vessel (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)
The coronavirus infecting a blood vessel (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

Israeli scientists have identified the virus proteins that are triggering strokes and heart attacks in COVID-19 patients, in a breakthrough they expect will pave the way for new drugs.

The scientists made the discovery by taking a “peek in the virus’s black box,” Dr. Ben Maoz of Tel Aviv University told The Times of Israel, explaining that his team analyzed all 29 proteins of the virus to figure out which of them are wreaking havoc in the vascular system.

“Coronavirus isn’t the purely respiratory disease we first thought, and we have identified the proteins that put patients at increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and other problems associated with the vascular system,” Maoz said.

He identified the five proteins in SARS-CoV-2 that lead to vascular problems in the peer-reviewed journal eLife.

“This work could well help scientists to develop drugs to counter the effect of the coronavirus on the vascular system, by providing an understanding of exactly which proteins, or pieces of the virus, are causing problems,” said Maoz.

His lab, which focuses on biomedical engineering and neuroscience, collaborated with Prof. Uri Ashery and other Tel Aviv University researchers to create a simulation of a human vascular system and observe the impact of all 29 coronavirus proteins. From their analysis, they were able to identify which of them affected the vascular system — and how.

A hospital worker treats a patient at Ziv Medical Center’s coronavirus ward, in the northern city of Safed, on August 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“We have not only discovered which proteins have an impact on the vascular system, but also seen how exactly they exert their effect,” said Maoz. “What we found is these specific proteins make your vasculature more leaky. The tubes become more porous and cannot hold liquid as you would hope. This information is also valuable in efforts to develop drugs.”

Maoz hopes to lay foundations for more nuanced treatment of coronavirus.

“To this day the virus has been treated as one entity, despite the fact that it affects different parts of the body in different ways,” he said.

“All the evidence shows that the virus severely damages the blood vessels or the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels. I hope that our research will prove useful in enabling more targeted treatment.”

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