Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

Eyeballs, asthmatics, and 3D-printed organs: New discoveries about COVID-19 abound

August 7, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC
Eyeballs, asthmatics, and 3D-printed organs: New discoveries about COVID-19 abound
3D-printed organs created by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are displayed on May 15, 2019, in London. Recent COVID-19 discoveries involve eye transmission, 3D printing, heart infection, asthma, and hand sanitizer, writes Carolyn Barber.
Tristan Fewings—Getty Images/Barbican Centre

In general, the public’s interest in research related to COVID-19 is focused on a single issue: Is there a vaccine, and when is it going to be ready?

It’s a massive question, of course. But it is not the only one that scientists and medical experts are asking. Every day, researchers around the world are cranking out papers related to COVID-19—and the truth is, we are making progress in understanding this disease.

With more than 4.8 million cases and about 160,000 deaths in the U.S., the information their research is uncovering could not be more timely. Here are some of the most recent and interesting findings, drawn both from preprints—non-peer-reviewed articles—and published trials.

The eyes have it

Can the coronavirus infect us through our eyes? It appears likely. A team of Chinese researchers has mapped the genes for the ACE2 receptor (the specific protein that allows the virus to infect human cells) to the cornea of the eye.

These receptors are found also in the lungs, heart, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, and elsewhere, but we now know they are in the eyes too. In fact, another team examined the eyes of deceased COVID patients and found that ACE2 receptors were located on both the surface and cornea of the eyes. The studies, published as preprints, don’t prove that someone could catch the virus from the eyes, but they certainly demonstrate that it’s possible.

This has important implications for all of us. As we mask up, eye-protective strategies may be a significant consideration. A recent, large systematic review published in The Lancet found that wearing eye coverings, like goggles, glasses or face shields, reduced COVID-19 and other viral transmission by nearly three times compared to individuals not wearing eye protection.

Hearts, attacked

Three studies released this month show that the coronavirus is infecting the hearts of some of its victims fairly commonly. That is a finding that bears watching.

According to a study published in JAMA Cardiology, autopsies of more than three dozen elderly victims of the disease showed that 61% of the patients’ hearts had virus present within the heart muscle. A German study, meanwhile, showed cardiac involvement in 78% of patients (average age 49) who had recently recovered from COVID-19. And a third study of 139 health care workers with past COVID-19 infection found a combined 40% incidence of heart inflammatory conditions, known as pericarditis or myocarditis, in those who were stable or asymptomatic nearly three months after their initial diagnosis. This is a bit unnerving.

Clearly, these studies are concerning for both the magnitude and apparent persistence of cardiac involvement in coronavirus patients. One of the next questions to answer is what the long-term consequences might be. Will surviving patients go on to develop heart failure, for example, or will their hearts fully recover? We just don’t know yet.

3D printing organs: It’s real

Although this sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, we now have the ability to 3D print human tissue. The process is known as 3D bioprinting.

Scientists have been able to 3D print living skin, complete with blood vessels, which one day will be helpful in treating burns and sizable wounds in patients. Now, as reported in the New York Times, researchers are 3D printing miniature organs for COVID-19—“thousands an hour”—in order to test potential medicines to combat the virus.

This is a remarkable development. These “organoids,” or tiny lungs and colons, may be used by laboratories to solve the COVID riddle.

Hand sanitizer versus soap

We’ve been told by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wash our hands with soap and water when possible, rather than using hand sanitizer. But a new meta-analysis concludes differently. While both methods reduce germ transmission, the researchers state that direct and indirect evidence “suggest hand sanitizer might be more effective in practice.”

A word of caution, though: Some hand sanitizers have been labeled as containing ethanol, but they actually contain dangerous concentrations of methanol (also known as wood alcohol). These products, often made in Mexico, have been recalled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because of serious toxicity that can result in blindness, cardiac issues, seizures, and even death. Here’s a link to the FDA’s do-not-use list.

Potential good news for asthmatics

Although it has been suggested otherwise, surprisingly little evidence exists that asthmatics have higher infection rates of COVID-19, or more severe disease, than people without asthma.

A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology last month showed that asthma patients were no more likely to be hospitalized or experience higher mortalities than patients without asthma. Researchers wonder whether asthma patients’ younger age, fewer comorbid conditions like heart disease or diabetes, or use of inhaled steroids may play a role in modulating SARS-CoV-2 infectivity.

One study just released as a preprint did show somewhat higher inpatient mortality among asthmatic patients, but these patients were older and had more comorbidities than those without asthma, so the playing field wasn’t exactly level. The study also demonstrated that out of more than 71,000 patients with asthma, only 1.4% had contracted COVID-19.

That is an impressively low rate—and during these difficult times, it’s news worth sharing. COVID-19 is certainly a disease where we want to follow the science, and fortunately, scientists from around the globe are on the case. 

Carolyn Barber has been an emergency department physician for 25 years, is cofounder of the homeless work program Wheels of Change, and is a nationally published author.