Increased expression of hypoxia-induced factor 1α mRNA and its related genes in myeloid blood cells from critically ill COVID-19 patients

Ann Med. 2021 Dec;53(1):197-207. doi: 10.1080/07853890.2020.1858234.


Background: COVID-19 counts 46 million people infected and killed more than 1.2 million. Hypoxaemia is one of the main clinical manifestations, especially in severe cases. HIF1α is a master transcription factor involved in the cellular response to oxygen levels. The immunopathogenesis of this severe form of COVID-19 is poorly understood.

Methods: We performed scRNAseq from leukocytes from five critically ill COVID-19 patients and characterized the expression of hypoxia-inducible factor1α and its transcriptionally regulated genes. Also performed metanalysis from the publicly available RNAseq data from COVID-19 bronchoalveolar cells.

Results: Critically-ill COVID-19 patients show a shift towards an immature myeloid profile in peripheral blood cells, including band neutrophils, immature monocytes, metamyelocytes, monocyte-macrophages, monocytoid precursors, and promyelocytes-myelocytes, together with mature monocytes and segmented neutrophils. May be the result of a physiological response known as emergency myelopoiesis. These cellular subsets and bronchoalveolar cells express HIF1α and their transcriptional targets related to inflammation (CXCL8, CXCR1, CXCR2, and CXCR4); virus sensing, (TLR2 and TLR4); and metabolism (SLC2A3, PFKFB3, PGK1, GAPDH and SOD2).

Conclusions: The up-regulation and participation of HIF1α in events such as inflammation, immunometabolism, and TLR make it a potential molecular marker for COVID-19 severity and, interestingly, could represent a potential target for molecular therapy. Key messages Critically ill COVID-19 patients show emergency myelopoiesis. HIF1α and its transcriptionally regulated genes are expressed in immature myeloid cells which could serve as molecular targets. HIF1α and its transcriptionally regulated genes is also expressed in lung cells from critically ill COVID-19 patients which may partially explain the hypoxia related events.

Keywords: COVID-19; HIF1α; SARS-CoV-2; critically ill; immature myeloid cells; scRNAseq.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / genetics*
  • Critical Illness*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / genetics*
  • Male
  • Myeloid Cells / metabolism*
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA / methods*
  • Up-Regulation


  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit
  • RNA, Messenger

Grants and funding

This work was partially supported by grants 289499 from Fondos Sectoriales Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia Mexico and R-2015-785-015 from Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (MM). DMR is a recipient of the National Council for Science and Technology Fellowship “Catedra CONACyT” program.