SARS-CoV-2 Entry Genes Are Most Highly Expressed in Nasal Goblet and Ciliated Cells within Human Airways.ArXiv. 2020 Mar 13A
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the etiologic agent responsible for COVID-19 coronavirus disease, is a global threat. To better understand viral tropism, we assessed the RNA expression of the coronavirus receptor, ACE2, as well as the viral S protein priming protease TMPRSS2 thought to govern viral entry in single-cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq) datasets from healthy individuals generated by the Human Cell Atlas consortium. We found that ACE2, as well as the protease TMPRSS2, are differentially expressed in respiratory and gut epithelial cells. In-depth analysis of epithelial cells in the respiratory tree reveals that nasal epithelial cells, specifically goblet/secretory cells and ciliated cells, display the highest ACE2 expression of all the epithelial cells analyzed. The skewed expression of viral receptors/entry-associated proteins towards the upper airway may be correlated with enhanced transmissivity. Finally, we showed that many of the top genes associated with ACE2 airway epithelial expression are innate immune-associated, antiviral genes, highly enriched in the nasal epithelial cells. This association with immune pathways might have clinical implications for the course of infection and viral pathology, and highlights the specific significance of nasal epithelia in viral infection. Our findings underscore the importance of the availability of the Human Cell Atlas as a reference dataset. In this instance, analysis of the compendium of data points to a particularly relevant role for nasal goblet and ciliated cells as early viral targets and potential reservoirs of SARS-CoV-2 infection. This, in turn, serves as a biological framework for dissecting viral transmission and developing clinical strategies for prevention and therapy.