COVID-19 can trigger autoantibodies that attack the body itself

COVID-19 can trigger autoantibodies that attack the body itself. Photo: Rosa Pinto

infection by coronavirus what cause COVID-19 can trigger an immune response that lasts far beyond the initial infection and recovery, even among people who have mild symptoms or who have no (asymptomatic) symptoms, concluded researchers from Hospital Cedars-Sinai, in Los Angeles, USA.

When people are infected with a virus or other pathogen, their bodies release proteins called antibodies that detect foreign substances and prevent them from invading cells. However, in some cases, people produce autoanticorpos that can attack the body’s own organs and tissues over time.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Hospital have found that people with a previous infection with SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, have a wide range of autoantibodies for up to six months after they have fully recovered. Prior to this study, researchers knew that severe cases of COVID-19 can stress the immune system that would produce autoantibodies. This study is the first to report not only the presence of a high number of autoantibodies after mild or asymptomatic infection, but also their persistence over time.

“These findings help to explain what makes COVID-19 an especially unique disease,” said Justyna Fert-Bober, investigator in the Department of Cardiology at Smith Heart Institute and senior co-author of the study. “These patterns of immune dysregulation may underlie the different types of persistent symptoms we see in people who develop the condition referred to as COVID-19 long.”

To conduct the study, the Cedars-Sinai Hospital research team involved 177 people with confirmed evidence of a previous infection with SARS-CoV-2. The researchers compared blood samples from these individuals with samples taken from healthy people before the pandemic. All who had confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection had high levels of autoantibodies. Some of the autoantibodies have also been found in people with illnesses in which the immune system attacks its own healthy cells, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

“We found signs of autoantibody activity that are often linked to chronic inflammation and damage involving specific organ systems and tissues such as joints, skin, and the nervous system,” said Susan Cheng, director of the Healthy Aging Research Institute in the Department of Cardiology. Smidt Heart Institute and senior co-author of the study.

Some of the autoantibodies have been associated with autoimmune diseases that generally affect women more often than men. In this study, however, men had a greater number of autoantibodies than women.

“On the one hand, this finding is paradoxical, given that autoimmune diseases are generally more common in women,” said Fert-Bober. “On the other hand, it’s also somewhat expected, given everything we know about men being more vulnerable to the most serious forms of COVID-19.” The results of the study were published in “Journal of Translational Medicine”.

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