Penetration of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein across the Blood-Brain Barrier, as Revealed by a Combination of a Human Cell Culture Model System and Optical Biosensing

Biomedicines. 2022 Jan 17;10(1):188. doi: 10.3390/biomedicines10010188.


Since the outbreak of the global pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), several clinical aspects of the disease have come into attention. Besides its primary route of infection through the respiratory system, SARS-CoV-2 is known to have neuroinvasive capacity, causing multiple neurological symptoms with increased neuroinflammation and blood-brain barrier (BBB) damage. The viral spike protein disseminates via circulation during infection, and when reaching the brain could possibly cross the BBB, which was demonstrated in mice. Therefore, its medical relevance is of high importance. The aim of this study was to evaluate the barrier penetration of the S1 subunit of spike protein in model systems of human organs highly exposed to the infection. For this purpose, in vitro human BBB and intestinal barrier cell-culture systems were investigated by an optical biosensing method. We found that spike protein crossed the human brain endothelial cell barrier effectively. Additionally, spike protein passage was found in a lower amount for the intestinal barrier cell layer. These observations were corroborated with parallel specific ELISAs. The findings on the BBB model could provide a further basis for studies focusing on the mechanism and consequences of spike protein penetration across the BBB to the brain.

Keywords: Caco-2 cells; Mach–Zehnder interferometer; biosensor; coronavirus spike protein; human brain endothelial cell; integrated optics; permeability; tissue barriers.