March 15, 2021
Abstract: Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admissions and mortality in severe COVID-19 patients are driven by “cytokine storms” and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Interim clinical trial results suggest that the corticosteroid dexamethasone displays superior 28-day survival in severe COVID-19 patients requiring ventilation or oxygen. Among 16 patients with plasma IL-6 measurement post-corticosteroid administration, a higher proportion of patients with an IL-6 value over 10 pg/mL have worse outcomes (i.e. ICU Length of Stay > 15 days or death) when compared to 41 patients treated with non-corticosteroid drugs including antivirals, tocilizumab, azithromycin, and hydroxychloroquine (p-value = 0.0024). Given this unexpected clinical association between post-corticosteroid IL-6 levels and COVID-19 severity, we hypothesized that the Glucocorticoid Receptor (GR or NR3C1) may be coupled to IL-6 expression in specific cell types that govern cytokine release syndrome (CRS). Examining single cell RNA-seq data from bronchoalveolar lavage fluid of severe COVID-19 patients and nearly 2 million human cells from a pan-tissue scan shows that alveolar macrophages, smooth muscle cells, and endothelial cells co-express both NR3C1 and IL-6. The mechanism of Glucocorticoid Receptor (GR) agonists mitigating pulmonary and multi-organ inflammation in some COVID-19 patients with respiratory failure, may be in part due to their successful antagonism of IL-6 production within lung macrophages and vasculature.
Samir Awasthi1+, Tyler Wagner1+, AJ Venkatakrishnan1, Arjun Puranik1, Matthew Hurchik1, Vineet Agarwal1, Ian Conrad1, Christian Kirkup1, Raman Arunachalam2, John O'Horo3, Walter Kremers3, Rahul Kashyap3, William Morice, II3,4, John Halamka3,5, Amy W. Williams3, William A. Faubion Jr.3, Andrew D. Badley3, Gregory J. Gores3, Venky Soundararajan1*