Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Smuggling Tunnels

SARS-CoV-2 can spread in the brain and body via tunnelling cell membrane nanotubes

01 September 2022

Smuggling Tunnels

For decades, El Chapo was the world's most powerful drug trafficker. Using an elaborate network of tunnels, he smuggled more narcotics into the USA than anyone else on the planet. Scientists have discovered that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, can use a similar trick to spread around the body. After being infected, some people suffer long COVID: symptoms like depression, fatigue, and 'brain fog' that last for months. We know SARS-CoV-2 can infect the brain, but we don't understand how, as most neurons lack the molecular 'lock' that the virus 'picks' to gain entry. Here, visualised by cryo-ET, we see SARS-CoV-2 viruses (dark blue) travelling inside and along the surface of a tunnelling nanotube (green). When SARS-CoV-2 infects a cell, it forces its host to build these tunnels to uninfected cells and smuggles itself through them. These results explain why COVID-19 affects the brain and may offer a new treatment target.

Written by Henry Stennett

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