Aims: SARS-CoV-2 infection causes COVID-19, which in severe cases evokes life-threatening acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Transcriptome signatures and the functional relevance of non-vascular cell types (e.g. immune and epithelial cells) in COVID-19 are becoming increasingly evident. However, despite its known contribution to vascular inflammation, recruitment/invasion of immune cells, vascular leakage and perturbed hemostasis in the lungs of severe COVID-19 patients, an in-depth interrogation of the endothelial cell (EC) compartment in lethal COVID-19 is lacking. Moreover, progressive fibrotic lung disease represents one of the complications of COVID-19 pneumonia and ARDS. Analogous features between idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and COVID-19 suggest partial similarities in their pathophysiology, yet, a head-to-head comparison of pulmonary cell transcriptomes between both conditions has not been implemented to date.
Methods and results: We performed single nucleus RNA-seq (snRNA-seq) on frozen lungs from 7 deceased COVID-19 patients, 6 IPF explant lungs and 12 controls. The vascular fraction, comprising 38,794 nuclei, could be subclustered into 14 distinct EC subtypes. Non-vascular cell types, comprising 137,746 nuclei, were subclustered and used for EC-interactome analyses. Pulmonary ECs of deceased COVID-19 patients showed an enrichment of genes involved in cellular stress, as well as signatures suggestive of dampened immunomodulation and impaired vessel wall integrity. In addition, increased abundance of a population of systemic capillary and venous ECs was identified in COVID-19 and IPF. COVID-19 systemic ECs closely resembled their IPF counterparts, and a set of 30 genes was found congruently enriched in systemic ECs across studies. Receptor-ligand interaction analysis of ECs with non-vascular cell types in the pulmonary micro-environment revealed numerous previously unknown interactions specifically enriched/depleted in COVID-19 and/or IPF.
Conclusions: This study uncovered novel insights into the abundance, expression patterns and interactomes of EC subtypes in COVID-19 and IPF, relevant for future investigations into the progression and treatment of both lethal conditions.
Translational perspective: While assessing clinical and molecular characteristics of severe and lethal COVID-19 cases, the vasculature's undeniable role in disease progression has been widely acknowledged. COVID-19 lung pathology moreover shares certain clinical features with late-stage IPF - yet an in-depth interrogation and direct comparison of the endothelium at single-cell level in both conditions is still lacking. By comparing the transcriptomes of ECs from lungs of deceased COVID-19 patients to those from IPF explant and control lungs, we gathered key insights the heterogeneous composition and potential roles of ECs in both lethal diseases, which may serve as a foundation for development of novel therapeutics.