COVID-19 virus can infect heart muscles, researchers find

Erica Carbajal - Print  | 

Researchers from St. Louis-based Washington University School of Medicine found evidence that the COVID-19 virus is able to invade and replicate inside heart muscle cells, the university said March 1. 

While COVID-19 is associated with heart problems, it's been unclear whether they are due to an inflammatory response to the infection or from the virus infecting the heart itself. 

Using heart tissue engineered from stem cells, researchers found SARS-CoV-2 can replicate inside heart muscle cells, leading to cell death and interference with heart muscle contraction. They found the same after analyzing tissue from four COVID-19 patients who developed heart injury. 

"Our study is unique because it definitively shows that, in patients with COVID-19 who developed heart failure, the virus infects the heart, specifically the heart muscles," said Kory Lavine, MD, PhD, lead study author and associate professor of medicine at the university.

Their findings were published Feb. 26 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Basic to Translational Science. 

In addition to heart muscle cell death, the researchers found viral infection can destroy the muscle fiber units behind heart muscle contraction using stem cell models to evaluate how human heart tissue contracts. They found this can happen without inflammation. 

"Inflammation can be a second hit on top of damage caused by the virus, but the inflammation itself is not the initial cause of heart injury," Dr. Lavine said.  

The team now plans to conduct a similar mouse model study. 

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