COVID-19 Targets Human Adrenal Glands

COVID-19 develops due to infection with SARS-CoV-2, which particularly in elderly with certain comorbidities (eg, metabolic syndrome)

can cause severe pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Some patients with severe COVID-19 will develop a life-threatening sepsis with its typical manifestations including disseminated intravascular coagulation and multiorgan dysfunction.

Latest evidence suggests that even early treatment with inhaled steroids such as budesonide might prevent clinical deterioration in patients with COVID-19.

This evidence underlines the potentially important role for adrenal steroids in coping with COVID-19.

The adrenal gland is an effector organ of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and the main source of glucocorticoids, which are critical to manage and to survive sepsis. Therefore, patients with pre-existing adrenal insufficiency are advised to double their doses of glucocorticoid supplementation after developing moderate to more severe forms of COVID-19.

Adrenal glands are vulnerable to sepsis-induced organ damage and their high vascularisation and blood supply makes them particularly susceptible to endothelial dysfunction and haemorrhage. Accordingly, adrenal endothelial damage, bilateral haemorrhages, and infarctions have been already reported in patients with COVID-19.

Adrenal glands contain the highest concentration of antioxidants to compensate enhanced generation of reactive oxygen species, side products of steroidogenesis, which together with elevated intra-adrenal inflammation can contribute to adrenocortical cell death.

Furthermore, sepsis-associated critical illness-related corticosteroid insufficiency, which describes coexistence of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal dysfunction, reduced cortisol metabolism, and tissue resistance to glucocorticoids, was reported in critically ill patients with COVID-19.

Low cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) responses during acute phase of infections consistent with critical illness-related corticosteroid insufficiency diagnosis (random plasma cortisol level lower than 10 μg/dL) were reported in one study with patients suffering from mild to moderate COVID-19 manifestations.

It is however possible those other factors triggered by COVID-19 such as hypothalamic or pituitary damage, adrenal infarcts, or previously undiagnosed conditions, such as antiphospholipid syndrome, might be responsible for reduced function of adrenal glands. However, contrary to this observation, a study with patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 revealed a very high cortisol response with values exceeding 744 nmol/L, which were positively correlated with severity of disease.

In this clinical study,

highly elevated cortisol concentrations showed an adequate adrenal cortisol production possibly reflecting the elevated stress level of those severely affected patients.

However, since ACTH measurements were not done, it is impossible to verify whether high concentrations of cortisol in those patients resulted from an increment of cortisol, or were confounded by reduced glucocorticoid metabolism.

A critical and yet unsolved major question is whether SARS-CoV-2 infection can contribute either directly or indirectly to adrenal gland dysfunction observed in some patients with COVID-19 or contribute to the slow recovery of some patients with long COVID.
We performed a comprehensive histopathological examination of adrenal tissue sections from autopsies of patients that died due to COVID-19 (40 cases), collected from three different pathology centres in Regensburg, Dresden, and Zurich (appendix pp 1–3). We observed evidence of cellular damage and frequently small vessel vasculitis (endotheliitis) in the periadrenal fat tissue (six cases with low and 13 cases with high density; appendix p 10) and much milder occurrence in adrenal parenchyma (ten cases with low and one case with moderate score; appendix p 10), but no evidence of thrombi formation was found (appendix p 10). Endotheliitis has been scored according to a semi-quantitative immunohistochemistry analysis as described in the appendix (p 4). Additionally, in the majority of cases (38 cases), we noticed enhanced perivascular lymphoplasmacellular infiltration of different density and sporadically a mild extravasation of erythrocytes (appendix p 10). However, no evidence of widespread haemorrhages and degradation of adrenocortical cells were found, which is consistent with histological findings reported previously.

In another autopsy study analysing adrenal glands of patients with COVID-19, additional signs of acute fibrinoid necrosis of small vessels in adrenal parenchyma, subendothelial vacuolisation and apoptotic debris were found.

Adrenal gland is frequently targeted by bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV,

which was responsible for the 2002–04 outbreak of SARS in Asia. Considering that SARS-CoV-2 shares cellular receptors with SARS-CoV, including angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 and transmembrane protease serine subtype 2, its tropism to the adrenal gland is therefore conceivable.

To investigate whether adrenal vascular cells and possibly steroid-producing cells are direct targets of SARS-CoV-2, we examined SARS-CoV-2 presence in adrenal gland tissues obtained from the 40 patients with COVID-19 (appendix pp 1–3). Adrenal tissues from patients who died before the COVID-19 pandemic were used as negative controls to validate antibody specificity. Using a monoclonal antibody (clone 1A9; appendix p 11), we detected SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in adrenocortical cells in 18 (45%) of 40 adrenal gland tissues (figure Bappendix p 12). In the same number of adrenal tissues (18 [45%] of 40), we have detected SARS-CoV-2 mRNA using in situ hybridisation (ISH; figure Aappendix p 12). The concordance rate between immunohistochemistry and ISH methods was 90% (36/40). Scattered and rather focal expression pattern of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein was found in the adrenal cortex (figure A and Bappendix p 12). In addition, SARS-CoV-2 expression was confirmed in 15 out of 30 adrenal gland tissues of patients with COVID-19 by multiplex RT-qPCR (appendix pp 6–7). The concordance between ISH, immunohistochemistry, and RT-qPCR techniques for SARS-CoV-2 positivity was only 23%, which is a technical limitation of our study possibly reflecting the low number of virus-positive cells. However, when considering triple-negative samples, an overall 53% consensus was found (appendix pp 7–8).

Figure thumbnail gr1
FigureDetection of SARS-CoV-2 in human adrenal gland from a patient who died due to COVID-19
Finally, to confirm the identity of infected cells, we have performed an ultrastructural analysis of adrenal tissue from a triple-positive patient case (by immunohistochemistry, ISH, and RT-qPCR), and found numerous SARS-CoV-2 virus-like particles in cells enriched with liposomes, which are typical markers of adrenocortical cells (figure C). The cortical identity of SARS-CoV-2 spike positive cells was also shown using serial tissue sections, demarcating regions with double positivity for viral protein and StAR RNA (appendix p 12). Furthermore, susceptibility of adrenocortical cells to SARS-CoV-2 infection was confirmed by in-vitro experiments (appendix p 7) showing detection of viral spike protein in adrenocortical carcinoma cells (NCI-H295R) cultured in a medium containing SARS-CoV-2 (figure D), and its absence in mock-treated control cells (figure E). We showed an uptake of viral particles in the adrenocortical cells, by ISH, immunohistochemistry, RT-qPCR and electron microscopy (figure A–C). Mechanistically, an uptake of SARS-CoV-2 like particles might involve expression of ACE2 in vascular cells (appendix p 13) and perhaps of the shorter isoform of ACE2 together with TMPRSS2 and other known or currently unknown virus-entry facilitating factors in adrenocortical cells (appendix p 13). An example of such factor is scavenger receptor type 1, which is highly expressed in adrenocortical cells.

Several forms of regulated cell necrosis were implicated in sepsis-mediated adrenal gland damage.

One of the prime examples of regulated necrosis triggered by sepsis-associated tissue inflammation is necroptosis. The necrotic process is characterised by loss of membrane integrity and release of danger-associated molecular patterns, which further promote tissue inflammation (necroinflammation) involving enhanced activation of the complement system and related activation of neutrophils. Whether necroptosis might be involved in COVID-19-associated adrenal damage is currently unknown. In our study, we showed prominent expression of phospho Mixed Lineage Kinase Domain Like Pseudokinase (pMLKL) indicating necroptosis activation in adrenomedullary cells (appendix p 14) in adrenal glands of COVID-19 patients. However, since we have also observed pMLKL expression in adrenal glands obtained from autopsies done before the COVID-19 pandemic (controls), necroptosis activation in medullary cells might be a rather frequent and SARS-CoV-2 independent event. However, contrary to the adrenal medulla, pMLKL positivity in the adrenal cortex was only found in virus-positive regions (appendix p 14). This finding suggests that SARS-CoV-2 infection might have directly triggered activation of necroptosis in infected cells in the adrenal cortex, whereas pMLKL expression in the adrenal medulla seems rather an indirect consequence of systemic inflammation.

In summary, in our study of 40 patients who died from COVID-19, we did not observe widespread degradation of human adrenals that might lead to manifestation of the adrenal crisis. However, our study shows that the adrenal gland is a prominent target for the viral infection and ensuing cellular damage, which could trigger a predisposition for adrenal dysfunction. Whether those changes directly contribute to adrenal insufficiency seen in some patients with COVID-19 or lead to its complications (such as long COVID) remains unclear. Large multicentre clinical studies should address this question.
WK, HC, and SRB declare funds from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (project number 314061271, TRR 205/1 [“The Adrenal: Central Relay in Health and Disease”] to WK and SRB; HA 8297/1-1 to HC), during the conduct of this Correspondence. All other authors declare no competing interests. We thank Maria Schuster, Linda Friedrich, and Uta Lehnert for performing some of the immunohistochemical staining and in-situ hybridisation.

Supplementary Material

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Resolution of pituitary microadenoma after coronavirus disease 2019: a case report

This article was originally published here

J Med Case Rep. 2021 Nov 1;15(1):544. doi: 10.1186/s13256-021-03127-3.

ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND: This report describes the case of a patient whose pituitary microadenoma resolved after he contracted coronavirus disease 2019. To our knowledge, this is one of the first reported cases of pituitary tumor resolution due to viral illness. We present this case to further investigate the relationship between inflammatory response and tumor remission.

CASE PRESENTATION: A 32-year-old man in Yemen presented to the hospital with fever, low blood oxygen saturation, and shortness of breath. The patient was diagnosed with coronavirus disease 2019. Past medical history included pituitary microadenoma that was diagnosed using magnetic resonance imaging and secondary adrenal insufficiency, which was treated with steroids. Due to the severity of coronavirus disease 2019, he was treated with steroids and supportive care. Three months after his initial presentation to the hospital, brain magnetic resonance imaging was performed and compared with past scans. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed changes in the microadenoma, including the disappearance of the hypointense lesion and hyperintense enhancement observed on the previous scan.

CONCLUSIONS: Pituitary adenomas rarely undergo spontaneous resolution. Therefore, we hypothesized that tumor resolution was secondary to an immune response to coronavirus disease 2019.

PMID:34724974 | DOI:10.1186/s13256-021-03127-3

CDC Expands Eligibility for COVID-19 Booster Shots

 

For Immediate Release: Thursday, October 21, 2021
Contact: Media Relations
(404) 639-3286

Today, CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., endorsed the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ (ACIP) recommendation for a booster shot of COVID-19 vaccines in certain populations. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authorization and CDC’s recommendation for use are important steps forward as we work to stay ahead of the virus and keep Americans safe.

For individuals who received a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the following groups are eligible for a booster shot at 6 months or more after their initial series:

For the nearly 15 million people who got the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, booster shots are also recommended for those who are 18 and older and who were vaccinated two or more months ago.

There are now booster recommendations for all three available COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. Eligible individuals may choose which vaccine they receive as a booster dose. Some people may have a preference for the vaccine type that they originally received, and others may prefer to get a different booster. CDC’s recommendations now allow for this type of mix and match dosing for booster shots.

Millions of people are newly eligible to receive a booster shot and will benefit from additional protection. However, today’s action should not distract from the critical work of ensuring that unvaccinated people take the first step and get an initial COVID-19 vaccine. More than 65 million Americans remain unvaccinated, leaving themselves – and their children, families, loved ones, and communities– vulnerable.

Available data right now show that all three of the COVID-19 vaccines approved or authorized in the United States continue to be highly effective in reducing risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death, even against the widely circulating Delta variant. Vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and reduce the spread of the virus and help prevent new variants from emerging.

The following is attributable to Dr. Walensky:

“These recommendations are another example of our fundamental commitment to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19. The evidence shows that all three COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States are safe – as demonstrated by the over 400 million vaccine doses already given. And, they are all highly effective in reducing the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death, even in the midst of the widely circulating Delta variant.”

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Hypopituitarism and COVID-19 – exploring a possible bidirectional relationship?

As of September 1, 2021, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is the virus responsible for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has infected over 219 million and caused the deaths of over 4.5 million worldwide. Although COVID-19 has been traditionally associated with its ability to cause varied symptoms resembling acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), emerging scientific evidence has demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 causes much more damage beyond its effects on the upper respiratory tract.

To this end, in a recent study published in Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders, the researchers discuss the extra-pulmonary manifestations of COVID-19.

Risk factors for severe COVID-19

It is now a well-known fact that the likelihood of people falling severely ill or dying from COVID-19 is increases if these individuals are obese, or have certain comorbidities like diabetes mellitus (DM), vitamin D deficiency, and vertebral fractures (VFs).

Any abnormality in the pituitary gland may lead to metabolic disorders, impaired immunity, and a host of other conditions that also make the body susceptible to infections. Since such conditions are common in patients with COVID-19 as well, it has been hypothesized that there might be a relationship between COVID-19 and pituitary gland disorders.

On the other hand, researchers have also observed that COVID-19 causes increased severity of pituitary-related disorders, and even pituitary apoplexy, which is a condition defined as internal bleeding or impaired blood supply in the pituitary gland. A group of Italian researchers has reviewed this bidirectional relationship between the pituitary gland abnormalities and COVID-19 in their study recently published in Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders.

The link between pituitary gland abnormalities and COVID19

The pituitary gland releases hormones that regulate and control some of the most important functions of the body like growth, metabolism, energy levels, bone health, mood swings, vision, reproduction, and immunity, to name a few. The inability of the pituitary gland to release one or more of these hormones is known as ‘hypopituitarism.’  Factors responsible for hypopituitarism include traumatic brain injury, pituitary adenomas (tumors), genetic mutations, as well as infiltrative and infectious diseases.

Hypopituitarism can lead to severe cases of DM, growth hormone deficiency (GHD), abnormal lipid profile, obesity, arterial hypertension, and immune dysfunctions. Interestingly, similar consequences of COVID-19 have also been reported.

SARS-CoV-2 infects the human body by binding to a special class of receptors known as the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors. These receptors are located in the endothelial linings of most organs like the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, intestine, liver, and pancreas, among others. The main function of the ACE2 receptors is binding to specific target molecules to maintain the renin-angiotensin system that is crucial for regulating dilation of blood vessels, as well as maintain blood glucose levels, the immune system, and homeostasis.

Therefore, SARS-CoV-2 binding to these ACE2 receptors facilitates the entry of this virus into all the organs that have these receptors, thus leading to the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to cause widespread damage in the body. Upon entry into the pancreas, for example, SARS-CoV-2 can inhibit ß-cells function, which worsens hyperglycemia and increases the risk for acute diabetic complications.

Similarly, the presence of ACE2 receptors in brain tissues may cause invasion into the pituitary gland and lead to pituitary apoplexy. The entry of SARS-CoV-2 into the brain can also cause neurological damage in infected patients, which may account for some of the common neurological complaints of COVID-19 including headaches, confusion, dysgeusia, anosmia, nausea, and vomiting.

Study findings

Hypopituitarism leading to metabolic syndrome has been scientifically linked to higher mortality in COVID-19 patients. In fact, the presence of a single metabolic syndrome component has been observed to double the risk of death by COVID-19. This risk was even higher among patients with DM and hypertension.

There was also an increased incidence of VFs in COVID-19 patients with hypopituitarism. Hence, patients with DM, obesity, hypertension, and chronic inflammatory disease, are all at an increased risk of poor outcomes and death in COVID-19.

Arterial hypertension is a common finding in adults with GHD, which is another consequence of hypopituitarism. Hypopituitarism also causes adrenal insufficiency, a condition that is primarily managed with glucocorticoids and hormonal replacement therapies.

Notably, patients with COVID-19 are often treated for prolonged periods with high-dose exogenous glucocorticoids, which is a class of steroids that suppress some activities of the immune system. This treatment approach may result in suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary–adrenal axis that can lead to adrenal insufficiency.

Hypogonadism is another aspect of pituitary insufficiency that predisposes patients, especially males, to COVID-19. Evidence shows that males with hypogonadism were more frequently affected by metabolic syndrome.

Pituitary apoplexy, albeit rare, has also been linked to COVID-19, especially in patients with pituitary adenomas and those who are being treated with anticoagulant therapy. This may be because the pituitary gland becomes overstimulated during an infectious disease, which may increase pituitary blood demand and lead to sudden infarction precipitating acute apoplexy.

This phenomenon has also been shown in patients suffering from infectious diseases that cause hemorrhagic fevers. Taken together, pituitary apoplexy complicates treatment and management procedures in COVID-19 patients.

Despite the use of steroids in COVID-19 patients, there have been no contraindications for vaccination in such patients. However, those on extensive hormonal therapies need constant monitoring for best results.

Implications

The pituitary gland acts like a double-edged sword for COVID-19. On one end, hypopituitarism predisposes patients to metabolic disorders like DM, obesity, and VFs, all of which are known risk factors for COVID-19.

On the other hand, COVID-19 may cause direct or indirect damage to the pituitary glands by entering the brain and inducing unfavorable vascular events – though evidence on this remains lesser in comparison to that of hypopituitarism. Ultimately, the researchers of the current study conclude that managing patients with hormonal insufficiencies optimally with steroids is likely to improve outcomes in severe COVID-19.

Journal reference:

Primary Adrenal Insufficiency Due to Bilateral Adrenal Infarction in COVID-19

This article was originally published here

J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2021 Jul 29:dgab557. doi: 10.1210/clinem/dgab557. Online ahead of print.

ABSTRACT

CONTEXT: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a proinflammatory and prothrombotic condition, but its impact on adrenal function has not been adequately evaluated.

CASE REPORT: A 46-year-old woman presented with abdominal pain, hypotension, and skin hyperpigmentation after COVID-19 infection. The patient had hyponatremia, serum cortisol <1.0 µg/dL, adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) of 807 pg/mL, and aldosterone ❤ ng/dL. Computed tomography (CT) findings of adrenal enlargement with no parenchymal and minimal peripheral capsular enhancement after contrast were consistent with bilateral adrenal infarction. The patient had autoimmune hepatitis and positive antiphospholipid antibodies, but no previous thrombotic events. The patient was treated with intravenous hydrocortisone, followed by oral hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone.

DISCUSSION: We identified 9 articles, including case reports, of new-onset adrenal insufficiency and/or adrenal hemorrhage/infarction on CT in COVID-19. Adrenal insufficiency was hormonally diagnosed in 5 cases, but ACTH levels were measured in only 3 cases (high in 1 case and normal/low in other 2 cases). Bilateral adrenal nonhemorrhagic or hemorrhagic infarction was identified in 5 reports (2 had adrenal insufficiency, 2 had normal cortisol levels, and 1 case had no data). Interestingly, the only case with well-characterized new-onset acute primary adrenal insufficiency after COVID-19 had a previous diagnosis of antiphospholipid syndrome. In our case, antiphospholipid syndrome diagnosis was established only after the adrenal infarction triggered by COVID-19.

CONCLUSION: Our findings support the association between bilateral adrenal infarction and antiphospholipid syndrome triggered by COVID-19. Therefore, patients with positive antiphospholipid antibodies should be closely monitored for symptoms or signs of acute adrenal insufficiency during COVID-19.

PMID:34463766 | DOI:10.1210/clinem/dgab557

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