Image by Camilo Jimenez via Unsplash / Futurism

Even though we're nearly a full calendar year into the COVID pandemic, scientists still don't fully understand how the coronavirus targets and attacks different parts of our bodies.

Now, doctors have uncovered that SARS-CoV-2 can attack the heart directly, according to a massive study led by Washington University School of Medicine researchers that was published in the journal JACC: Basic to Translational Science last month. The scientists conducted autopsies of people killed by COVID-19 and exposed cultured stem cells to the virus in order to show that the coronavirus can infect heart muscle cells, where it seems to cause troubles with their contractions.

"Early on in the pandemic, we had evidence that this coronavirus can cause heart failure or cardiac injury in generally healthy people, which was alarming to the cardiology community," senior study author and Washington University cardiologist and immunologist Kory Lavine said in a press release. "Even some college athletes who had been cleared to go back to competitive athletics after COVID-19 infection later showed scarring in the heart."

Lavine added that there's been ongoing debate over whether the heart damage is caused by the actual coronavirus infection or if it stems from an inflammatory immune response triggered by the virus. But, he suggests, this new study may put that debate to rest.

"Our study is unique because it definitively shows that, in patients with COVID-19 who developed heart failure, the virus infects the heart, specifically heart muscle cells," Lavine added. "Inflammation can be a second hit on top of damage caused by the virus, but the inflammation itself is not the initial cause of the heart injury."

There's more work to be done before doctors fully understand the issue. But actually being able to use autopsies to validate their experimental findings was a valuable and uncommon step forward for the effort to figure out what this coronavirus is actually doing to our bodies.

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