March 7, 2021

The human brain vasculature shows a distinct expression pattern of SARS-CoV-2 entry factors

A large number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients show neurological symptoms such as ischemic- and hemorrhagic stroke as well as encephalitis, and SARS-CoV-2 can directly infect endothelial cells leading to endotheliitis across multiple vascular beds. These findings suggest an involvement of the brain- and peripheral vasculature in COVID-19, but the underlying molecular mechanisms remain obscure. To understand the potential mechanisms underlying SARS-CoV-2 tropism for brain vasculature, we constructed a molecular atlas of the expression patterns of SARS-CoV-2 viral entry-associated genes (receptors and proteases) and SARS-CoV-2 interaction partners in human (and mouse) adult and fetal brain as well as in multiple non-CNS tissues in single-cell RNA-sequencing data across various datasets. We observed a distinct expression pattern of the cathepsins B (CTSB) and -L (CTSL) – which are able to substitute for the ACE2 co-receptor TMPRSS2 – in the human vasculature with CTSB being mainly expressed in the brain vasculature and CTSL predominantly in the peripheral vasculature, and these observations were confirmed at the protein level in the Human Protein Atlas and using immunofluorescence stainings. This expression pattern of SARS-CoV-2 viralentry associated proteases and SARS-CoV-2 interaction partners was also present in endothelial cells and microglia in the fetal brain, suggesting a developmentally establishedSARS-CoV-2 entry machinery in the human vasculature. At both the adult and fetal stages, we detected a distinct pattern of SARS-CoV-2 entry associated genes’ transcripts in brain vascular endothelial cells and microglia, providing a potential explanation for an inflammatory response in the brain endothelium upon SARS-CoV-2 infection. Moreover, CTSB was co-expressed in adult and fetal brain endothelial cells with genes and pathways involved in innate immunity and inflammation, angiogenesis, blood-brain-barrier permeability, vascular metabolism, and coagulation, providing a potential explanation for the role of brain endothelial cells in clinically observed (neuro)vascular symptoms in COVID-19 patients. Our study serves as a publicly available single-cell atlas of SARS-CoV-2 related entry factors and interaction partners in human and mouse brain endothelial- and perivascular cells, which can be employed for future studies in clinical samples of COVID-19 patients.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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