How COVID-19 causes smell loss, a new study finds
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An international team of researchers led by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School has identified the olfactory cell types most vulnerable to infection by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

They began by analyzing existing single-cell sequencing datasets that in total catalogued the genes expressed by hundreds of thousands of individual cells in the upper nasal cavities of humans, mice and nonhuman primates.

The team focused on the gene ACE2, widely found in cells of the human respiratory tract, which encodes the main receptor protein that SARS-CoV-2 targets to gain entry into human cells. They also looked at another gene, TMPRSS2, which encodes an enzyme thought to be important for SARS-CoV-2 entry into the cell.

The analyses revealed that both ACE2 and TMPRSS2 are expressed by cells in the olfactory epithelium—a specialized tissue in the roof of the nasal cavity responsible for odor detection that houses olfactory sensory neurons and a variety of supporting cells.

Neither gene, however, was expressed by olfactory sensory neurons. By contrast, these neurons did express genes associated with the ability of other coronaviruses to enter cells.

The researchers found that two specific cell types in the olfactory epithelium expressed ACE2 at similar levels to what has been observed in cells of the lower respiratory tract, the most common targets of SARS-CoV-2, suggesting a vulnerability to infection.

These included sustentacular cells, which wrap around sensory neurons and are thought to provide structural and metabolic support, and basal cells, which act as stem cells that regenerate the olfactory epithelium after damage. The presence of proteins encoded by both genes in these cells was confirmed by immunostaining.

Together, these data suggest that COVID-19-related anosmia may arise from a temporary loss of function of supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium, which indirectly causes changes to olfactory sensory neurons, the authors said.

Source: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/07/24/sciadv.abc5801.1
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