Transcriptional changes in multiple endocrine organs from lethal cases of COVID-19

J Mol Med (Berl). 2023 Aug;101(8):973-986. doi: 10.1007/s00109-023-02334-3. Epub 2023 May 29.


Altered circulating hormone and metabolite levels have been reported during and post-COVID-19. Yet, studies of gene expression at the tissue level capable of identifying the causes of endocrine dysfunctions are lacking. Transcript levels of endocrine-specific genes were analyzed in five endocrine organs of lethal COVID-19 cases. Overall, 116 autoptic specimens from 77 individuals (50 COVID-19 cases and 27 uninfected controls) were included. Samples were tested for the SARS-CoV-2 genome. The adrenals, pancreas, ovary, thyroid, and white adipose tissue (WAT) were investigated. Transcript levels of 42 endocrine-specific and 3 interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs) were measured and compared between COVID-19 cases (virus-positive and virus-negative in each tissue) and uninfected controls. ISG transcript levels were enhanced in SARS-CoV-2-positive tissues. Endocrine-specific genes (e.g., HSD3B2, INS, IAPP, TSHR, FOXE1, LEP, and CRYGD) were deregulated in COVID-19 cases in an organ-specific manner. Transcription of organ-specific genes was suppressed in virus-positive specimens of the ovary, pancreas, and thyroid but enhanced in the adrenals. In WAT of COVID-19 cases, transcription of ISGs and leptin was enhanced independently of virus detection in tissue. Though vaccination and prior infection have a protective role against acute and long-term effects of COVID-19, clinicians must be aware that endocrine manifestations can derive from virus-induced and/or stress-induced transcriptional changes of individual endocrine genes. KEY MESSAGES: • SARS-CoV-2 can infect adipose tissue, adrenals, ovary, pancreas and thyroid. • Infection of endocrine organs induces interferon response. • Interferon response is observed in adipose tissue independently of virus presence. • Endocrine-specific genes are deregulated in an organ-specific manner in COVID-19. • Transcription of crucial genes such as INS, TSHR and LEP is altered in COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; Endocrine tissues; Gene expression; Insulin; Leptin; SARS-CoV-2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / genetics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interferons
  • Pancreas
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics


  • Interferons