The ACE2-deficient mouse: A model for a cytokine storm-driven inflammation

FASEB J. 2020 Aug;34(8):10505-10515. doi: 10.1096/fj.202001020R. Epub 2020 Jun 17.


Angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) plays an important role in inflammation, which is attributable at least, in part, to the conversion of the pro-inflammatory angiotensin (Ang) II peptide into angiotensin 1-7 (Ang 1-7), a peptide which opposes the actions of AngII. ACE2 and AngII are present in many tissues but information on the cornea is lacking. We observed that mice deficient in the Ace2 gene (Ace2-/- ), developed a cloudy cornea phenotype as they aged. Haze occupied the central cornea, accompanied by corneal edema and neovascularization. In severe cases with marked chronic inflammation, a cell-fate switch from a transparent corneal epithelium to a keratinized, stratified squamous, psoriasiform-like epidermis was observed. The stroma contained a large number of CD11c, CD68, and CD3 positive cells. Corneal epithelial debridement experiments in young ACE2-deficient mice showed normal appearing corneas, devoid of haze. We hypothesized, however, that these mice are "primed" for a corneal inflammatory response, which once initiated, would persist. In vitro studies reveal that interleukins (IL-1a, IL-1b), chemokines (CCL2, CXCL8), and TNF-α, are all significantly elevated, resulting in a cytokine storm-like phenotype. This phenotype could be partially rescued by treatment with the AngII type 1 receptor (AT1R) antagonist, losartan, suggesting that the observed effect was mediated by AngII acting on its main receptor. Since the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) utilizes human ACE2 as the receptor for entry with subsequent downregulation of ACE2, corneal inflammation in Ace2-/- mice may have a similar mechanism with that in COVID-19 patients. Thus the Ace2-/- cornea, because of easy accessibility, may provide an attractive model to explore the molecular mechanisms, immunological changes, and treatment modalities in patients with COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; cornea; corneal epithelial cells; macrophages.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Angiotensin II / metabolism
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 / genetics*
  • Animals
  • COVID-19
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Chemokines / metabolism
  • Cornea / pathology*
  • Cytokine Release Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Interleukins / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Knockout
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • THP-1 Cells
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism


  • Chemokines
  • Interleukins
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Angiotensin II
  • Ace2 protein, mouse
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2