CHICAGO, Jan. 20 (Xinhua) -- New research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that people with problems in the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract may be vulnerable to COVID-19 infection after swallowing the virus.
In the study, the researchers analyzed tissue from 30 patients with Barrett's esophagus and found that cells in the tissue samples all had receptors for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which normal esophagus cells lack. They built and cultured mini organs from those and other esophagus tissue samples. Some of the sample organs were built with cells that came from healthy people while others came from patients with Barrett's esophagus.
The researchers found the virus was able to bind to and infect mini organs built from tissue from people with Barrett's esophagus. The more the cells in a specific patient's mini esophagus culture resembled intestine, the more the virus bound to and infected that culture.
Many patients with COVID-19, most of whom contract it by breathing in the viral particles, develop GI symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhea. The virus also has been found in the stool of COVID-19 patients. But this new study demonstrates that under the right circumstances, the virus also may have an impact in the upper part of the GI tract.
Standard medical management for patients with Barrett's esophagus is to suppress gastric acid secretions with drugs such as proton pump inhibitors. By reducing stomach acidity, those drugs may inadvertently make it possible for the virus to pass through the stomach and into the intestine, where even the normal, healthy cells carry receptors for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
"The worry would be that, particularly for Barrett's patients, there even may be a susceptibility to infection from foods containing viral particles," said senior investigator Jason C. Mills. "This study provides data to indicate that we need to take a closer look to investigate whether a substantial portion of the population may be susceptible to infection through what they swallow."
The study was published online Wednesday in the journal Gastroenterology.
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