University neuroscientists publishing on SARS-CoV-2 infection through the olfactory epithelium
SARS-CoV-2 infection spreads through the air. An early marker of infection is a reduced sense of smell, including anosmia, an early marker in many infected individuals. Two University neuroscientists, Chris von Bartheld, Ph.D. and Dennis Mathew, Ph.D. are investigating the molecular mechanisms that underlie the loss of smell in the olfactory epithelium.
Chris von Bartheld, Ph.D. in the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology in the School of Medicine and colleagues at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland have identified and localized Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and Transmembrane Serine Protease 2 (TMPRSS2), proteins required for SARS-CoV-2 infection, in specific cells of the murine olfactory epithelium. Specifically, expression was detected in the sustentacular cells with little or no protein in the olfactory neurons (Figure (Bilinska et al., 2020)). These data suggest that sustentacular cells are the pathway for SARS-CoV-2 virus entry and impairment of the sense of smell in COVID-19 patients (Butowt and von Bartheld, 2020). Bilinska et al. also found that protein expression increased with age, a finding that may explain the higher susceptibility and severity of COVID-19 in the elderly, and that expression levels were higher in males. This work has been featured in the NY Times and identified by the Web of Science as Nevada’s hottest paper for 2020. Other COVID-19 articles from this group include (Butowt et al., 2020a; Butowt et al., 2020b; von Bartheld et al., 2020).
Dennis Mathew, Ph.D. in the Department of Biology in the College of Science has written an opinion piece published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (Mathew, 2020) as part of a series of articles on the research topic of COVID-19 in CNS and PNS: Basic and Clinical Focus on the Mechanisms of Infection and New Tools for the Therapeutic Approach. Dr. Mathew writes about the role of ACE2 in mediating SARS-CoV-2 infection, noting that it also functions in glucose homeostasis and insulin sensitivity. He speculates that interactions between ACE2 and insulin signaling pathways may underlie severe complications and higher mortality rates observed in diabetics infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He points out that the olfactory systems of genetically tractable animals such as mice and fruit flies offer convenient venues to explore these critical questions.