Why COVID-19 Caused a Pandemic (And Other Coronaviruses Didn’t)

Epithelial cells line the inside of the lungs, making them the cells that have the first contact with the outside air. Wang studied the effect of certain external influences, such as viruses and cigarette smoke, on these cells. To do this, she exposed the epithelial cells, grown in the laboratory, to viruses that cause lung infections and to cigarette smoke.

Wang used her research to map in detail the effects of virus infections on epithelial cells. In this way she could determine which specific proteins should be used to fight viruses. For example, she found that treatment with interphones helps to reduce a viral infection. Interferons are certain proteins that play a role in the immune system. ‘For example, by using these interferons at an early stage of a virus outbreak, or by stimulating the body to produce interferons, we hope to reduce the risk of pandemics in the future,’ explains Wang.

The uniqueness of COVID-19

One of the viruses in Wang’s research was the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. COVID-19 belongs to the coronaviruses, which can be sickening. Other coronaviruses cause mild symptoms, such as a cold. What then ensured that the SARS-CoV-2 virus did cause a major pandemic?

Wang explains that the cells’ response to this virus is different from other coronaviruses: ‘A virus binds to a specific structure in the body, which causes the body to recognize the virus. As a result, the body reacts to a virus infection and ensures that all kinds of proteins are mobilized to fight the virus. With a SARS-CoV-2 infection, part of this mobilization is missing, which means that the body has much more difficulty fighting this virus. In addition, every body reacts differently to virus infections, including SARS-CoV-2. This makes the virus incredibly difficult to predict.’

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Negative influence of cigarette smoke on energy factories

In addition, Wang looked at the precise effect of cigarette smoke on epithelial cells. Cigarette smoke negatively affects mitochondria in the epithelial cells. Wang: ‘Mitochondria are the energy factories of the cell. Cigarette smoke makes them less effective. As a result, you are – as you can expect – tired much faster. The influence on mitochondria also helps to explain why smokers are more susceptible to viral infections in the lungs.’

Wang is pleased with the results of her PhD research. ‘We now have a much better understanding of the reactions that viruses cause in epithelial cells, which means we know, for example, which types of proteins can help fight viral infections. This allows us to take major steps in the development of medicines, for example for COPD patients.’

Wang received his doctorate on Thursday 26 January 2023.

Text: Leiden University
Afbeelding: Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

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