To explore the pathological features and pathogenesis of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to provide evidence for the clinical treatment and prevention of SARS.
Pathological features of 2 cases of full autopsy and 4 cases of needle biopsy tissue samples from the patients who died from SARS were studied by light and electron microscopy. The distribution and quantity of lymphocyte subpopulations in the lungs and immune organs from SARS patients were analyzed by immunohistochemistry. The location and semi-quantitative analysis of SARS coronavirus in the tissue specimens were studied by electron microscopy, in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry.
In total of 6 cases, diffuse alveolar damage and alveolar cell proliferation were common. The major pathological changes of 2 autopsy cases of SARS in lung tissues were acute pulmonary interstitial and alveolar exudative inflammation, and 2 autopsy and one biopsy lung tissues showed alveolar hyaline membrane formation. Terminal bronchiolar and alveolar desquamation of lung tissues in one autopsy and 2 biopsy cases were noted. Among 6 cases, 2 biopsy cases presented early pulmonary fibrosis and alveolar organization. Meanwhile, the immune organs, including lymph nodes and spleens from 2 autopsy cases of SARS whose disease courses were less than 12 days showed extensive hemorrhagic necrosis, reactive macrophage/histocyte proliferation, with relative depression of mononuclear and granulocytic clones in the bone marrows. However, spleen and bone marrow biopsy tissue samples from 4 dead SARS cases whose clinical course lasted from 21 to 40 days presented repairing changes. SARS coronaviruses were mainly identified in type I and II alveolar epithelia, macrophages, and endothelia; meanwhile, some renal tubular epithelial cells, cardiomyocytes, mucosal and crypt epithelial cells of gastrointestinal tracts, parenchymal cells in adrenal glands, lymphocytes, testicular epithelial cells and Leydig's cells were also detected by electron microscopy combined with in situ hybridization. The semi-quantitative analysis of lymphocyte subpopulations revealed that the proportion of CD8+ T lymphocytes were about 80% of the total infiltrative inflammatory cells in the pulmonary interstitium, with a few CD4+ lymphocytes CD3+, CD4+, CD8+ or CD20+ lymphocyte subpopulations were obviously decreased and there was imbalance in number and proportion, while CD57+, CD68+, S-100+ and HLA-DR+ cells were relatively increased in lymph nodes and spleens.
Histologically, the pulmonary changes could be divided into acute inflammatory exudative, terminal bronchiolar and alveolar desquamative and proliferative repair stages or types during the pathological process of SARS. SARS coronavirus was found in multi-target cells in vivo, which means that SARS coronavirus might cause multi-organ damages which were predominant in lungs. There were varying degrees of decrease and imbalance in number and proportion of lymphocyte subpopulations in the immune organs of the patients with SARS. However, these changes may be reversible. It was found that cellular immune responses were predominant in the lungs of SARS cases, which might play an important role in getting rid of coronaviruses in infected cells and inducing immune mediated injury.