Human Taste Cells Express ACE2: a Portal for SARS-CoV-2 Infection

bioRxiv. 2021 Apr 21;2021.04.21.440680. doi: 10.1101/2021.04.21.440680. Preprint


Loss and changes in taste and smell are well-reported symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The virus targets cells for entry by high affinity binding of its spike protein to cell-surface angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2). It was not known whether ACE2 is expressed on taste receptor cells (TRCs) nor if TRCs are infected directly. Using an in-situ hybridization (ISH) probe and an antibody specific to ACE2, it seems evident that ACE2 is present on a subpopulation of specialized TRCs, namely, PLCβ 2 positive, Type II cells in taste buds in taste papillae. Fungiform papillae (FP) of a SARS-CoV-2+ patient exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, including taste changes, were biopsied. Based on ISH, replicating SARS-CoV-2 was present in Type II cells of this patient. Therefore, taste Type II cells provide a portal for viral entry that predicts vulnerabilities to SARS-CoV-2 in the oral cavity. The continuity and cell turnover of the FP taste stem cell layer of the patient were disrupted during infection and had not fully recovered 6 weeks post symptom onset. Another patient suffering post-COVID-19 taste disturbances also had disrupted stem cells. These results indicate that a COVID-19 patient who experienced taste changes had replicating virus in their taste buds and that SARS-CoV-2 infection results in deficient stem cell turnover needed for differentiation into TRCs.

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