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The SARS-CoV-2 Main Protease Mpro Causes Microvascular Brain Pathology by Cleaving NEMO in Brain Endothelial Cells


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) can damage cerebral small vessels and cause neurological symptoms. Here we describe structural changes in cerebral small vessels of patients with COVID-19 and elucidate potential mechanisms underlying the vascular pathology. In brains of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-infected individuals and animal models, we found an increased number of empty basement membrane tubes, so-called string vessels representing remnants of lost capillaries. We obtained evidence that brain endothelial cells are infected and that the main protease of SARS-CoV-2 (Mpro) cleaves NEMO, the essential modulator of nuclear factor-κB. By ablating NEMO, Mpro induces the death of human brain endothelial cells and the occurrence of string vessels in mice. Deletion of receptor-interacting protein kinase (RIPK) 3, a mediator of regulated cell death, blocks the vessel rarefaction and disruption of the blood–brain barrier due to NEMO ablation. Importantly, a pharmacological inhibitor of RIPK signaling prevented the Mpro-induced microvascular pathology. Our data suggest RIPK as a potential therapeutic target to treat the neuropathology of COVID-19.


Wenzel, J., Lampe, J., Müller-Fielitz, H., Schuster, R., Zille, M., Müller, K., ... & Schwaninger, M. (2021). The SARS-CoV-2 main protease Mpro causes microvascular brain pathology by cleaving NEMO in brain endothelial cells. Nature Neuroscience, 24(11), 1522-1533.

For Research Use Only. Not For Clinical Use.
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