A key to long COVID

Scientists find a way to block mechanism that leads to debilitating breathing problems

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Researchers have found a mechanism behind one of the most common symptoms of long COVID — shortness of breath caused by lung fibrosis — and a new avenue to pursue for remedies.

In lung fibrosis, normally thin walls in the lungs’ air sacs become thick and scarred. In long COVID patients this scarring can be debilitating and hard to treat, said Gerlinde Wernig, MD, an assistant professor of pathology and senior author of a February 2023 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous Wernig research uncovered pulmonary fibrosis characteristics of scar tissue formation that played out similarly in the long COVID study: a spike in production of interleukin-6, a protein indicative of chronic inflammation and scar formation; an increase in production of CD47, a protein that helps fibroblasts responsible for scar tissue formation to proceed unchecked; and an increase in the pJUN protein, a promoter of scar formation.

The good news is that, in mice, the team found very little fibrosis after blocking CD47 and interleukin-6. “This hints at possible treatments for long COVID involving drugs that carry out targeted immune blockades,” Wernig said.

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Christopher Vaughan

Christopher Vaughan is the communications manager for the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. Email him at vaughan1@stanford.edu.

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