“COVID-19 fattens up our body’s cells to fuel its viral takeover”

Illustration of a SARS-CoV-2 viral particle entering a cell. The particle pierces through a cell’s membrane, made of two layers of lipids. A PNNL-OHSU team has shown how lipids are key to the ability of the virus to replicate. (Illustration by Michael Perkins | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

“Compounds that cut off the flow of fatty fuel stop the virus from replicating in the lab, OHSU researchers find.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 undertakes a massive takeover of the body’s fat-processing system, creating cellular storehouses of fat that empower the virus to hijack the body’s molecular machinery and cause disease. After scientists at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) discovered the important role of fat for SARS-CoV-2, they used weight-loss drugs and other fat-targeting compounds to try to stop the virus in cell culture. Cut off from its fatty fuel, the virus stopped replicating within 48 hours.

“The researchers, who published their findings in Nature Communications, caution that the results are in cell culture, not in people; much more research remains to see if such compounds hold promise for people diagnosed with COVID. However, the scientists call the work a significant step toward understanding the virus.

Fikadu Tafesse standing in his lab.

Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D. (OHSU)

“This is exciting work, but it’s the start of a very long journey,” said Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D., the corresponding author of the study and assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine. “We have an interesting observation, but we have a lot more to learn about the mechanisms of this disease.”

Fat as fuel

“The team embarked on the study based on observations that people with a high body-mass index and conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes are more sensitive to the disease.

“The team studied the effect of SARS-CoV-2 on more than 400 lipids, or fats, in two different human cell lines. Scientists found a massive shift in lipid levels, with some fats increasing as much as 64-fold. In one cell line, nearly 80% of fats were altered by the virus; in the other, levels of slightly more than half were changed.

“The lipids most affected were triglycerides, those little packets of fat that most patients try to keep to a minimum. Triglycerides are crucial for our health, allowing us to store energy and to maintain healthy membranes in our cells.

“It turns out that those oily blobs of fat are also critical for the COVID-19 virus…”