Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Smell Cell

Dysfunction of sustentacular cells in the nose underlies sense of smell loss with COVID

31 December 2021

Smell Cell

This is a sustentacular cell infected with SARS-CoV-2 (blue, green) that was collected from the nose of a patient who died of the infection. If you’re not familiar with sustentacular cells you’re not alone. Even scientists who study olfaction (how we sense smells) didn’t know much about these cells compared with the extensively studied olfactory neurons – the cells that bind fragrant molecules and signal to the brain. But studies of COVID patients’ nasal mucosa has brought these somewhat overlooked cells into the limelight, revealing them to be crucial to olfaction. Indeed, research shows it is nasal sustentacular cells, not olfactory neurons, the virus preferentially infects, meaning it is sustentacular cell dysfunction that’s primarily responsible for the loss of smell suffered by COVID patients. It seems then, that in their quest to understand SARS-CoV-2 biology, scientists are now discovering things about olfaction that had been right under (or inside) their noses.

Written by Ruth Williams

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