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MIT Technology Review

Where the coronavirus strikes

Researchers have identified the specific cell types most vulnerable to viral invasion.

NIAID

The symptoms of covid-19 often affect the respiratory and digestive systems, so it makes sense to suppose that the virus may target cells in those parts of the body. Now researchers at MIT, Harvard, and elsewhere have identified specific types of cells in the lungs, nasal passages, and intestines that are particularly susceptible.

The research, led by chemistry professor and IMES researcher Alex K. Shalek and former postdoc Jose Ordovas-Montanes (now at Boston Children’s Hospital), grew out of other scientists’ work showing that the virus takes advantage of two human receptor proteins, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and TMPRSS2, to bind to host cells and get inside them. Using existing data, they were able to search for cells that express RNA for those proteins much more than others do, meaning they are more likely to produce the proteins and thus be more vulnerable to the virus. These include mucus-­producing cells in the nasal passages, lung cells responsible for keeping the alveoli (air sacs) open, and intestinal cells responsible for absorbing certain nutrients.

Much of the data came from labs participating in the Human Cell Atlas, a project to catalogue patterns of gene activity for every cell type in the body. “Because we have this incredible repository of information, we were able to begin to look at what would be likely target cells,” Shalek says. “Even though these data sets weren’t designed specifically to study covid, it’s hopefully given us a jump-start.”

The data could help scientists working on new covid-19 treatments or testing drugs that could be repurposed. “Our goal is to get information out to the community and to share data as soon as is humanly possible,” Shalek says.