Coronavirus is filling patients’ lungs with liquid ‘jelly,’ autopsies reveal

UMEA, Sweden — For patients suffering from severe cases of COVID-19, lung damage and respiratory failure are common occurrences. In some cases, those who have died from the virus developed a strange side-effect from the illness — liquid gel filling their lungs. Researchers in Sweden have discovered what this substance is and say it may help scientists develop new treatments to fight coronavirus.

“There are already therapies that either slow down the body’s production of this jelly or breaks down the jelly through an enzyme. Our findings can also explain why cortisone seems to have an effect on COVID-19,” says Umeå University researcher Urban Hellman in a media release.

Hellman and his team say scans on critically ill COVID-19 patients reveal white patches within their lungs. Autopsies of some of the pandemic’s victims uncover the cause of these patches. They show a clear liquid jelly which is very similar to what the lung looks like after someone drowns. Before the study, researchers say it was unknown where the gel came from.

What is the gel found in coronavirus patients’ lungs?

Now, the Umeå University team concludes the jelly is made of a substance called hyaluronan. The material is a polysaccharide, which is a carbohydrate like starch, whose molecules are largely made up of sugar molecules.

Hyaluronan is actually a common thing to find in the human body. It can serve a number of functions, but it’s most useful interacting with connective tissue. Hyaluronan also plays a role in the early stages of wound healing. Scientists can be reproduce it synthetically as well. These products are commonly used by beauty companies to treat wrinkles and augment lip size.

The one place hyaluronan should not be is in the lungs. Since the substance can bind water together with its long molecules, forming a jelly, it can be devastating for COVID patients dealing with fluid in the lungs. This can quickly lead to the need for a ventilator or tragically result in death from respiratory failure.

Leading to a treatment

Study authors say knowing what this jelly actually is can help COVID researchers focus on preventing these buildups. The study reveals the drug Hymecromone can slow down hyaluronan production caused by other diseases like a gallbladder attack. There is also an enzyme which breaks down hyaluronan. It’s typically used to reverse unsuccessful cosmetic procedures.

Another treatment that can cut down the amount of hyaluronan in the body is cortisone. Researchers say a British study found the cortisone drug Dexamethasone has positive effects on critically ill coronavirus patients.

“It has previously been assumed that the promising preliminary results would be linked to the general anti-inflammatory properties of cortisone, but in addition to those beliefs, cortisone may also reduce the production of hyaluronan, which may reduce the amount of jelly in the lungs,” Hellman adds.

The study appears in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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