TAU researchers identify coronavirus proteins that can damage blood vessels

Dr. Ben Maoz. Photo credit: Tel Aviv University.

Research may lead to new treatments for COVID-19

Support this research

A team of experts led by Tel Aviv University (TAU) has identified five of the 29 proteins in the coronavirus that are responsible for damaging blood vessels. The researchers hope that the identification of these proteins will help develop targeted drugs for COVID-19 that reduce vascular damage.

The study was led by Dr. Ben Maoz of TAU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Sagol School of Neuroscience, Professor Uri Ashery of TAU’s Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Professor Roded Sharan of TAU’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science. The results of the new study were published in the journal eLife.

“We see a very high incidence of vascular disease and blood clotting, for example stroke and heart attack, among COVID patients,” says Dr. Maoz. “We tend to think of COVID as primarily a respiratory disease, but the truth is that coronavirus patients are up to three times more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. All the evidence shows that the virus severely damages the blood vessels or the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels. However, to this day the virus has been treated as one entity. We wanted to find out which proteins in the virus are responsible for this type of damage.”

The novel coronavirus is a relatively simple virus, comprising a total of 29 different proteins (compared to the tens of thousands of proteins produced by the human body). The researchers used the RNA of each of the COVID-19 proteins and examined the reaction that occurred when the various RNA sequences were inserted into human blood vessel cells in the lab. They were thereby able to identify five coronavirus proteins that damage the blood vessels.

“When the coronavirus enters the body, it begins to produce 29 proteins, a new virus is formed, and that virus produces 29 new proteins, and so on,” Dr. Maoz explains. “In this process, our blood vessels turn from opaque tubes into kind of permeable nets or pieces of cloth, and in parallel there is an increase in blood clotting. We thoroughly examined the effect of each of the 29 proteins expressed by the virus, and were successful in identifying the five specific proteins that cause the greatest damage to endothelial cells and hence to vascular stability and function. In addition, we used a computational model developed by Professor Sharan which allowed us to assess and identify which coronavirus proteins have the greatest effect on other tissues, without having seen them ‘in action’ in the lab.”

According to Dr. Maoz, the identification of these proteins may have significant consequences in the fight against the virus. “Our research could help find targets for a drug that will be used to stop the virus’s activity, or at least minimize damage to blood vessels.”

Also participating in the study were Dr. Rossana Rauti, Dr. Yael Bardoogo, and doctoral student Meishar Shahoah of TAU and Professor Yaakov Nahmias of the Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University.

“Our research could help find targets for a drug that will be used to stop the virus’s activity, or at least minimize damage to blood vessels.”