Unlike flu, COVID-19 attacks DNA in the heart: new research – Brisbane Times

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By Stuart Layt

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Direct research on the hearts of COVID-19 patients who have died from the disease has revealed they sustained DNA damage in a way completely unlike how influenza affects the body.

The finding gives researchers clues about exactly how severe COVID-19 is affecting the body, and also a potential way to detect who will be seriously affected by the disease in the future.

Australian researchers have for the first time discovered COVID-19 causes DNA damage to the heart, giving clues to why the diseases causes heart complications in some people.Credit:iStock

The work was an international collaboration led by researchers from Australia, with Dr Arutha Kulasinghe from the University of Queensland’s Diamantina Institute and Ning Liu from Victoria’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research co-lead authors.

Kulasinghe said the research is only a preliminary step because the sample size was so small – the hearts of just seven COVID-19 patients from Brazil were studied for the paper, along with hearts from people who had died from influenza and a control group.

But he said their findings gave them insight for the first time as to why the heart was being affected by COVID-19 but not but severe influenza.

“We found a lot of DNA damage that was unique to the COVID-19 patients which wasn’t present in the flu patients,” he said.

“So in this study, COVID-19 and flu look very different in the way they affect the heart.”

The fact that COVID-19 affects people’s hearts has been observed both anecdotally and in a number of studies since the start of the pandemic, but the underlying cause is still yet to be determined.

One reason is that it is extremely difficult to get tissue samples from a living heart, so researchers have to wait for people to die from the disease and for their heart to be able to be studied.

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Kulasinghe said he and his colleagues found that rather than extreme inflammation which they had expected to find, inflammation signals had been suppressed in the hearts of the COVID-19 patients, while markers for DNA damage and repair were much higher than in people who had died from the flu.

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“So the indications here are that there’s DNA damage here, it’s not inflammation, there’s something else going on that we need to figure out,” Kulasinghe said.

He said the way the DNA damage presented was similar to the way chronic diseases such as diabetes or even cancer presented, with the tissues of the heart putting out DNA damage signals.

Dealing with the health implications of COVID-19 itself and of so-called Long Covid – the cohort of people who suffer chronic complications from the disease – will be a challenge for countries in the months and years ahead.

A federal senate inquiry into the issue is currently taking submissions, with the inquiry’s Chair, south-western Sydney Labor MP Dr Mike Freelander, saying earlier this month that he was “very concerned” about higher-than-normal deaths in the pandemic and that more research was needed to ascertain why.

Kulasinghe said they hoped their findings could be built upon to develop methods to establish who was at risk of serious complications from COVID-19, so they could be treated early.

“Ideally in the future if you have cardiovascular disease, if you’re obese or have other complications, and you’ve got a signature in your blood that indicates you are at risk of severe disease, then we can risk-stratify patients when they are diagnosed,” he said.

“Our challenge now is to draw a clinical finding from this, which we can’t at this stage, but it’s a really fundamental biological difference we’re observing [between COVID-19 and flu] which we need to validate with larger studies.”

The research has been published in the journal Immunology.

Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times.Connect via Twitter or email.

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