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biorxiv; 2022.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppzbmed-10.1101.2022.05.07.491004


Over 20 mutations have been identified in the N-Terminal Domain (NTD) of SARS-CoV-2 spike and yet few of them are fully characterised. Here we first examined the contribution of the NTD to infection and cell-cell fusion by constructing different VOC-based chimeric spikes bearing B.1617 lineage (Delta and Kappa variants) NTDs and generating spike pseudotyped lentivirus (PV). We found the Delta NTD on a Kappa or WT background increased spike S1/S2 cleavage efficiency and virus entry, specifically in Calu-3 lung cells and airway organoids, through use of TMPRSS2. Delta was previously shown to have fast cell-cell fusion kinetics and increased fusogenicity that could be conferred to WT and Kappa variant spikes by transfer of the Delta NTD. Moving to contemporary variants, we found that BA.2 had higher entry efficiency in a range of cell types as compared to BA.1. BA.2 showed higher fusogenic activity than BA.1, but the BA.2 NTD could not confer higher fusion to BA.1 spike. There was low efficiency of TMPRSS2 usage by both BA.1 and BA.2, and chimeras of Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 spikes with a Delta NTD did not result in more efficient use of TMRPSS2 or cell-cell fusogenicity. We conclude that the NTD allosterically modulates S1/S2 cleavage and spike-mediated functions such as entry and cell-cell fusion in a spike context dependent manner, and allosteric interactions may be lost when combining regions from more distantly related spike proteins. These data may explain the lack of dominant SARS-CoV-2 inter-variant recombinants bearing breakpoints within spike.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
biorxiv; 2021.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppzbmed-10.1101.2021.12.17.473248


The Omicron variant emerged in southern Africa in late 2021 and is characterised by multiple spike mutations across all spike domains. Here we show that the Omicron spike confers very significant evasion of vaccine elicited neutralising antibodies that is more pronounced for ChAdOx-1 adenovirus vectored vaccine versus BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine. Indeed neutralisation of Omicron was not detectable for the majority of individuals who had received two doses of ChAdOx-1. Third dose mRNA vaccination rescues neutralisation in the short term. Despite three mutations predicted to favour spike S1/S2 cleavage, observed cleavage efficiency is lower than for wild type Wuhan-1 D614G and Delta. We demonstrate significantly lower infectivity of lung organoids and Calu-3 lung cells expressing endogenous levels of ACE2 and TMPRSS2 but similar infection as compared to Delta when using H1299 lung epithelial cells. Importantly, fusogenicity of the Omicron spike is impaired, leading to marked reduction in syncitia formation. These observations indicate that Omicron has gained immune evasion properties whilst possibly modulating properties associated with replication and pathogenicity.

biorxiv; 2021.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppzbmed-10.1101.2021.06.06.446781


Prevention of SARS-CoV-2 entry in cells through the modulation of viral host receptors, such as ACE2, could represent a new therapeutic approach complementing vaccination. However, the mechanisms controlling ACE2 expression remain elusive. Here, we identify the farnesoid X receptor (FXR) as a direct regulator of ACE2 transcription in multiple COVID19-affected tissues, including the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems. We demonstrate that FXR antagonists, including the over-the-counter compound z-guggulsterone (ZGG) and the off-patent drug ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), downregulate ACE2 levels, and reduce susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection in lung, cholangiocyte and gut organoids. We then show that therapeutic levels of UDCA downregulate ACE2 in human organs perfused ex situ and reduce SARS-CoV-2 infection ex vivo. Finally, we perform a retrospective study using registry data and identify a correlation between UDCA treatment and positive clinical outcomes following SARS-CoV-2 infection, including hospitalisation, ICU admission and death. In conclusion, we identify a novel function of FXR in controlling ACE2 expression and provide evidence that this approach could be beneficial for reducing SARS-CoV-2 infection, thereby paving the road for future clinical trials.

COVID-19 , Gastrointestinal Diseases , Death
biorxiv; 2020.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppzbmed-10.1101.2020.07.10.194498


Severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is the cause of a present global pandemic, infects human lung alveolar cells (hACs). Characterising the pathogenesis is crucial for developing vaccines and therapeutics. However, the lack of models mirroring the cellular physiology and pathology of hACs limits the study. Here, we develop a feeder-free, long-term three-dimensional (3D) culture technique for human alveolar type 2 (hAT2) cells, and investigate infection response to SARS-CoV-2. By imaging-based analysis and single-cell transcriptome profiling, we reveal rapid viral replication and the increased expression of interferon-associated genes and pro-inflammatory genes in infected hAT2 cells, indicating robust endogenous innate immune response. Further tracing of viral mutations acquired during transmission identifies full infection of individual cells effectively from a single viral entry. Our study provides deep insights into the pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2, and the application of long-term 3D hAT2 cultures as models for respiratory diseases.