SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) infection relies on the binding of S protein (Spike glycoprotein) to ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) 2 in the host cells. Vascular endothelium can be infected by SARS-CoV-2, which triggers mitochondrial reactive oxygen species production and glycolytic shift. Paradoxically, ACE2 is protective in the cardiovascular system, and SARS-CoV-1 S protein promotes lung injury by decreasing the level of ACE2 in the infected lungs. In the current study, we show that S protein alone can damage vascular endothelial cells (ECs) by downregulating ACE2 and consequently inhibiting mitochondrial function.
We administered a pseudovirus expressing S protein (Pseu-Spike) to Syrian hamsters intratracheally. Lung damage was apparent in animals receiving Pseu-Spike, revealed by thickening of the alveolar septa and increased infiltration of mononuclear cells. AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase) phosphorylates ACE2 Ser-680, MDM2 (murine double minute 2) ubiquitinates ACE2 Lys-788, and crosstalk between AMPK and MDM2 determines the ACE2 level. In the damaged lungs, levels of pAMPK (phospho-AMPK), pACE2 (phospho-ACE2), and ACE2 decreased but those of MDM2 increased. Furthermore, complementary increased and decreased phosphorylation of eNOS (endothelial NO synthase) Thr-494 and Ser-1176 indicated impaired eNOS activity. These changes of pACE2, ACE2, MDM2 expression, and AMPK activity in endothelium were recapitulated by in vitro experiments using pulmonary arterial ECs infected with Pseu-Spike which was rescued by treatment with N-acetyl-L-cysteine, a reactive oxygen species inhibitor