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Coronavirus autopsies: A story of 38 brains, 87 lungs and 42 hearts

When pathologist Amy Rapkiewicz began the grim process of opening up the coronavirus dead to learn how their bodies went awry, she found damage to the lungs, kidneys and liver consistent with what doctors had reported for months.But something was off.Rapkiewicz, who directs autopsies at NYU Langone Health, noticed that some organs had far too…

When pathologist Amy Rapkiewicz started the grim process of opening up the coronavirus dead person to find out how their bodies went awry, she discovered damage to the lungs, kidneys and liver consistent with what doctors had reported for weeks.

But something was off.

Rapkiewicz, that directs autopsies in NYU Langone Health, discovered that some organs had way too many of a distinctive type of cell rarely found in those areas. She had never seen that before, yet it looked vaguely familiar. She hurried to her history books and — in a eureka moment — discovered a reference to some 1960s report on a patient with dengue fever.

In dengue, a mosquito-borne tropical disease, she learned, the virus seemed to destroy these cells, which produce platelets, leading to uncontrolled bleeding. The novel coronavirus appeared to amplify their impact, inducing clotting that was harmful\.

She had been struck by the parallels:”COVID-19 and dengue sound very distinct, but the cells which are included are similar.”

Autopsies have long been a source of breakthroughs in understanding new ailments, from HIV/AIDS and Ebola, to Lassa fever — along with the health care community is counting on them to do the exact same for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Having a vaccine probably many months away, autopsies are currently becoming a critical source of information for research into treatments\.

When the pandemic struck the United States in late March, many hospital programs were overly preoccupied trying to save lives to invest too much time delving into the secrets of their deceased. However, by late May and June, the first large batch of accounts — from patients who died at a half-dozen different institutions — were published in quick succession. The investigations have verified a number of our ancient hunches of the disease, refuted others — and opened up new mysteries regarding the novel pathogen which has killed over 500,000 folks worldwide.

Among the most important findings, consistent across several studies, is proof that the virus appears to assault the lungs that the most ferociously. As some had previously guessed, the pathogen was found by them in areas of the brain, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, spleen and from the endothelial cells that line blood vessels. Researchers found clotting .

However, the brain and heart yielded surprises.

“It is all about what we have been not visiting,” said Mary Fowkes, an associate professor of pathology who is a part of a team at Mount Sinai Health that has performed autopsies on 67 COVID-19 patients.

Given widespread reports about neurological disorders related to the coronavirus, Fowkes said, she expected to find virus or inflammation or both — in the brain. However there was very little. In regards to the heart, many physicians warned for months about a complication they suspected was myocarditis but investigators were stunned that they could discover no evidence of the status\.

Another unexpected finding, pathologists explained, is that oxygen deprivation of the brain and the formation of blood clots can begin early in the illness procedure. That could have major implications for how individuals with COVID-19 are treated in the home, even if they never need to be hospitalized.

The historical findings come as new U.S. infections have jeopardized even the catastrophic days of April, amid what some critics say is a premature easing of social distancing constraints in some states mainly from the South and West. A new modeling research has estimated that roughly 22% of the population — roughly 1.7 billion people worldwide, including 72 million in the United States — might be vulnerable to severe disease when infected by COVID-19. According to the analysis published this month in the Lancet Global Health, roughly 349 million, or 4 percent of those people would need hospitalization — underscoring the stakes as autopsy investigators continue their search for clues.

At their finest, autopsies can rebuild the natural course of the disease but the process to get a brand new and exceptionally infectious-disease is tedious and requires meticulous work. Prevent sending virus to the atmosphere and to shield pathologists, until they are studied, they need to utilize tools to harvest organs then dunk them\. They \need to then section each organ and gather small pieces of tissue under different kinds of microscopes for research\.

Among the very first American analyses to be made public, on April 10, was out of New Orleans. The patient was a 44-year-old man who had been treated at LSU Health. Richard Vander Heide remembers discovering what was likely and cutting on the lung hundreds or thousands of microclots.

“that I will never forget the afternoon,” remembered Vander Heide, who has been performing autopsies since 1994. “I said to this resident,’This is quite unusual.’ I had never seen something like this.”

However, as he moved onto the next individual and another, Vander Heide saw the same pattern. He had been alarmed, he stated, before submitting it to a journal that he shared the paper online so the information could be used instantly by doctors\. The findings caused a stir at several hospitals and influenced some physicians to begin giving blood thinners to all COVID-19 patients. It is now common practice. The final, peer-reviewed version involving 10 patients was subsequently printed in the Lancet in May.

Other lung autopsies — such as those described in papers by Italy of 38 patients, a Mount Sinai Health research on 25 patients, a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and German research on seven along with an NYU Langone Health on seven — have reported comparable findings of recurrence.

Most recently, a research this month at the Lancet’s eClinicalMedicine, found abnormal clotting in the heart, liver, kidney, in addition to the lungs of seven patients, causing the authors to suggest this may be a major reason for the multiple-organ collapse in COVID-19 patients.

The next organ analyzed up close has been the heart. One of the most frightening early reports concerning the coronavirus from China was that a substantial percentage of hospitalized patients — up to 20% to 30% — appeared to possess a heart problem known as myocarditis that could result in sudden death. So that it can pump efficiently, it entails the thickening of the muscle of the heart.

Classic myocarditis is typically easy to identify from autopsies, pathologists say. The condition occurs when the body perceives the tissue and attacks it. In that situation, there would be big zones in the center, along with the muscle tissues known as infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes would surround myocytes. But in the autopsy samples the myocytes that were dead were not surrounded by lymphocytes — leaving researchers scratching their heads.

Fowkes out of Mount Sinai and her colleague, Clare Bryce, whose job on 25 hearts has been released online but not yet peer reviewed, said they watched some”very gentle” inflammation of the surface of the heart but nothing that seemed like myocarditis.

NYU Langone’s Rapkiewicz, who studied seven hearts, was struck by the abundance of a rare cell named megakaryocytes in the heart. Megakaryocytes, which create platelets that control clotting exist only in lungs and the bone marrow. When she moved back to the lung samples from the patients that were coronavirus, she discovered those cells were overly abundant there, also\.

“that I couldn’t remember a case before where we noticed that,” she said. “It was remarkable that they were in the heart”

Vander Heide from LSU, who reported preliminary findings 10 sufferers in April and contains a more in-depth paper with more case studies on the topic under review at a journal, clarified that”if you take a look at a covid heart, you do not see exactly what you would expect.”

He explained a few patients he performed autopsies on had gone into cardiac arrest at the hospital, but if he analyzed them, the primary damage was from the lungs — maybe not the heart.

Of all the publication coronaviruses’s indications, its impact on the brain was among the most vexing. Patients have reported a host of neurological impairments including decreased ability to flavor or smell, altered mental status, stroke, seizures delirium.

An early analysis from China, published in the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, in March, found 22% of those 113 patients had experienced neurological problems ranging from excessive sleepiness to coma — conditions typically grouped together as disorders of comprehension. In June, researchers in France reported 84percent of patients in intensive care had neurological problems, along with a third were confused or disoriented at release. Also this month, those from the United Kingdom discovered that 57 of 125 coronavirus patients using a new neurological or psychiatric investigation had experienced a stroke due to a blood clot in the brain, also 39 had an altered mental condition.

Based on such information and anecdotal reports, Isaac Solomon, a neuropathologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, set out to systematically investigate where the virus may be embedding itself in the mind. He ran autopsies of 18 sequential deaths, taking pieces of important regions: the cerebral cortex (the grey matter responsible for data processing), thalamus (modulates sensory inputs), basal ganglia (responsible for engine controller ) along with others. Each was divided into a grid. Ten sections were taken from each and analyzed\.

He discovered snippets of virus only some areas, and it was uncertain whether they were dead remnants, or active virus when the patient expired. There were only tiny pockets of inflammation. But there were large swaths of damage due to oxygen deprivation. Whether the deceased were intensive care of patients, or individuals who died suddenly, Solomon explained, the routine was \similar.

“We’re very surprised,” he said.

When the brain does not get enough oxygen, human neurons die and that death is irreversible. At any stage, the damage is so extensive that functions start to degrade although to a certain degree, people’s brains may compensate.

On a practical level, Solomon said that when the virus isn’t getting into the brain in large quantities, that helps with drug development since treatment becomes trickier when it is pervasive, for example, in some patients with West Nile or HIV. Another take-away is the findings underscore the value of getting people on oxygen quickly to prevent damage\.

Solomon, whose work was published as a June 12 correspondence in the New England Journal of Medicine, said the findings suggest that the damage was happening over a longer period of time, which make him wonder about the virus’s impact on individuals who are less ill. “The large problem that is big is what happens to folks who live covid,” he explained. “Is there a lingering influence on the brain?”

The group from Mount Sinai Health, that took tissue findings from 20 brains, was also perplexed not to find a lot of virus or inflammation. However, the group noted in a newspaper that the widespread presence of small clots was”striking.”

“When you’ve got one blood clot within the brain, we see that all the time. But what we are seeing is some patients have multiple strokes into blood vessels which are in two or three different lands,” Fowkes said.

Rapkiewicz stated it is too early to know if the newest batch of autopsy findings can be translated into therapy varies, but the information has opened new paths to explore. One after discovering the cells, of her calls was to Jeffrey Berger, a specialist at NYU who conducts a National Institutes of Health-funded lab that focuses on platelets\.

Berger said the autopsies suggest anti-platelet medications, in addition to blood thinners, may be helpful to stem the ramifications of COVID-19. He’s pivoted a major clinical trial looking to look at the question as well\.

“It’s only one piece of a very major puzzle, and we’ve got a lot more to learn,” he explained. “However, if we are able to stop substantial complications and if more individuals can survive the infection, that changes everything.”

This story was originally published at washingtonpost.com. Read this.

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