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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Sparrow Pharmaceuticals Hopes To Change The Future Of Endocrinology

By Ed Miseta, Chief Editor, Clinical Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @EdClinical

Go ahead and continuously improvement iStock-1295289697

Sparrow Pharmaceuticals is an emerging biopharma company on a mission to help patients suffering from an excess of corticosteroids, with a focus on Cushing’s syndrome, autonomous cortisol secretion (ACS), and polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR).

Cushing’s and ACS are both caused by an excess of cortisol produced by tumors. Patients with Cushing’s can present physically with a fatty hump between their shoulders, a rounded face, and pink or purple stretch marks on their skin. Cushing’s syndrome and ACS can both result in high blood pressure, bone loss, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, and mood, cognition, and sleep disorders. Any of those symptoms may be side effects for patients with conditions such as PMR who rely on long-term treatment with corticosteroid medications such as prednisone.

“Cushing’s syndrome impacts around 20,000 patients in the U.S. alone,” says David Katz, Chief Scientific Officer for Sparrow. “Approximately 50% of those patients can be cured by surgery, but some will develop another tumor years later. ACS is an under-recognized condition, but it may affect up to 3 million patients in the U.S. There are also around 2 million people in the U.S. who rely on long-term use of corticosteroid medications to control autoimmune diseases and other conditions.”

The treatments being developed by Sparrow are based on recognition that cortisol and corticosteroid medications are activated in certain tissues such as the liver, bone, fat, and brain, where in excess they act to cause toxicity. The company’s investigational drugs inhibit HSD-1, the enzyme responsible for that activation.

Sparrow is about to launch a Phase 2 trial for Cushing’s syndrome. In early 2022 the company will also begin two additional Phase 2 trials for ACS and PMR, a common autoimmune disease in elderly patients. PMR is an arthritic syndrome characterized by a phenomenon known as claudication, which means the more you use a limb, the more it hurts and the harder it is to use. “For example, the more a PMR patient walks, the more painful and stiff their legs will become,” says Katz. “If they’re trying to do anything with their arms, the arms will get stiffer and more painful. The disease is pretty debilitating in terms of physical function. The only approved treatment for PMR is steroids, which have side effects such as diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and fractures.”

Unknown Clinical Challenges

Katz is excited about the clinical trials for ACS and PMR because no sizable interventional trials have been reported in either of those conditions.

“We’re going into a completely new area, and we don’t know what we’re going to encounter in terms of patient recruitment and retention,” says Katz. “There is also no strong precedent for how to get approval for a drug in these conditions. The only treatment indicated for PMR is steroids, and that came without any efficacy clinical trials. There are no drugs approved for ACS. It’s hard to anticipate the challenges we will face when we are in an area that is very new.”

Patient centricity is a topic that is very important to Katz, and he spends a lot of time thinking about how to make trials a more pleasant experience for patients by limiting the burden placed on them. He notes that can sometimes be a difficult trade-off because of the procedures that must be performed to meet regulatory standards.

“In Cushing’s syndrome clinical care and clinical trials, the standard way for someone’s cortisol level to be measured is a 24-hour urine collection,” states Katz. “That involves looking at the amount of cortisol in the urine over a 24-hour period. That collection is inconvenient and burdensome, and the patient must then carry it somewhere to be analyzed.”

Sparrow hopes to shift that collection to a spot urine sample, like what patients would experience during a physical. The patient would urinate into a cup and hand it off to a clinic employee for analysis. The process would be much simpler and less burdensome for the patient. Sparrow will first need to prove that in a clinical trial the spot sample will work as well or better than the 24-hour collection. Subjects in the initial clinical trials will have to contribute the 24-hour collections so that Sparrow can demonstrate that future patients will not need to do so.

The Future of Endocrinology

Katz has a positive outlook on the future of endocrinology. Sparrow’s leading drug candidate, SPI-62, is an oral, small-molecule HSD-1 inhibitor. In four clinical trials, it demonstrated potent targeting of HSD-1 in both the brain and liver, and significantly lowered cortisol levels in the liver. The studies also showed a favorable safety and tolerability profile.

“If we are successful at developing SPI-62, I believe it will change the field of endocrinology,” says Katz. “We aim to shift the focus in Cushing’s syndrome to intracellular cortisol as the main driver of symptoms. What I mean by that is if we find that SPI-62 substantially reduces symptoms and that the degree of inhibition of our target HSD-1 correlates well with clinical improvement, then we can get to a new standard of care. We can potentially get rid of the 24-hour urine collections, which will be a big relief to patients. Additionally, many of today’s drugs have a side effect called adrenal insufficiency, which results when the drugs either reduce cortisol too much or completely block activity. Many of today’s drugs also require frequent monitoring and dose titration to prevent adrenal insufficiency. We believe that with HSD-1 inhibition we might avoid adrenal insufficiency as well.”

Katz is hopeful patients treated with SPI-62 will not require monitoring and dose titration. That proof will take years and lots of clinical trials. Sparrow may also produce the first targeted therapy for ACS. That could improve the recognition of ACS as a prevalent form of hypercortisolism and a substantial cause of morbidity and mortality.

“ACS is probably the most under-recognized condition in endocrinology based on recent epidemiological studies,” adds Katz. “It’s possible that as few as 3% of patients who have ACS actually have a diagnosis.  That is shocking for a condition that is associated with a lot of cardiometabolic and bone morbidity, negative effects on mood and cognition, sleep, and muscle strength, and is associated with excess mortality. We want to bring attention to this condition by bringing out a targeted therapy to treat a spectrum of symptoms by getting to the root cause of them.”

From https://www.clinicalleader.com/doc/sparrow-pharmaceuticals-hopes-to-change-the-future-of-endocrinology-0001

Steroids! Scientists Hail Dexamethasone as ‘Major Breakthrough’ in Treating Coronavirus

 

Dexamethasone, a cheap and widely used steroid, has become the first drug shown to be able to save lives among Covid-19 patients in what scientists hailed as a “major breakthrough”.

Results of trials announced on Tuesday showed dexamethasone, which is used to reduce inflammation in other diseases, reduced death rates by around a third among the most severely ill Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital.

The results suggest the drug should immediately become standard care in patients with severe cases of the pandemic disease, said the researchers who led the trials.

“This is a result that shows that if patients who have Covid-19 and are on ventilators or are on oxygen are given dexamethasone, it will save lives, and it will do so at a remarkably low cost,” said Martin Landray, an Oxford University professor co-leading the trial, known as the RECOVERY trial.

“It’s going to be very hard for any drug really to replace this, given that for less than 50 pounds ($63.26), you can treat eight patients and save a life,” he told reporters in an online briefing.

His co-lead investigator, Peter Horby, said dexamethasone was “the only drug that’s so far shown to reduce mortality – and it reduces it significantly.”

“It is a major breakthrough,” he said. “Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide.”

There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which has killed more than 431,000 globally.

Saving ‘countless lives’

The RECOVERY trial compared outcomes of around 2,100 patients who were randomly assigned to get the steroid, with those of around 4,300 patients who did not get it.

The results suggest that one death would be prevented by treatment with dexamethasone among every eight ventilated Covid-19 patients, Landray said, and one death would be prevented among every 25 Covid-19 patients that received the drug and are on oxygen.

Among patients with Covid-19 who did not require respiratory support, there was no benefit from treatment with dexamethasone.

“The survival benefit is clear and large in those patients who are sick enough to require oxygen treatment, so dexamethasone should now become standard of care in these patients,” Horby said.

Nick Cammack, a expert on Covid-19 at the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the findings would “transform the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on lives and economies across the world”.

“Countless lives will be saved globally,” he said in a statement responding to the results.

The RECOVERY trial was launched in April as a randomised clinical trial to test a range of potential treatments for Covid-19, including low-dose dexamethasone and the malaria drug hydoxycholoroquine.

The hydroxychloroquine arm was halted earlier this month after Horby and Landray said results showed it was “useless” at treating Covid-19 patients.

Global cases of infection with the novel coronavirus have reached over 8 million, according to a Reuters tally, and more than 434,000 people have died after contracting the virus, the first case if which was reported in China in early January.

From https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/16/steroid-dexamethasone-reduces-deaths-from-severe-covid-19-trial.html

AACE Position Statement: Coronavirus (COVID-19) and People with Adrenal Insufficiency and Cushing’s Syndrome

With the novel COVID-19 virus continuing to spread, it is crucial to adhere to the advice from experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help reduce risk of infection for individuals and the population at large. This is particularly important for people with adrenal insufficiency and people with uncontrolled Cushing’s Syndrome.

Studies have reported that individuals with adrenal insufficiency have an increased rate of respiratory infection-related deaths, possibly due to impaired immune function. As such, people with adrenal insufficiency should observe the following recommendations:

  • Maintain social distancing to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19
  • Continue taking medications as prescribed
  • Ensure appropriate supplies for oral and injectable steroids at home, ideally a 90-day preparation
    • In the case of hydrocortisone shortages, ask your pharmacist and physician about replacement with different strengths of hydrocortisone tablets that might be available. Hydrocortisone (or brand name Cortef) tablets have 5 mg, 10 mg or 20 mg strength
  • In cases of acute illness, increase the hydrocortisone dose per instructions and call the physician’s office for more details
    • Follow sick day rules for increasing oral glucocorticoids or injectables per your physician’s recommendations
      • In general, patients should double their usual glucocorticoid dose in times of acute illness
      • In case of inability to take oral glucocorticoids, contact your physician for alternative medicines and regimens
  • If experiencing fever, cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms, call both the COVID-19 hotline (check your state government website for contact information) and your primary care physician or endocrinologist
  • Monitor symptoms and contact your physician immediately following signs of illness
  • Acquire a medical alert bracelet/necklace in case of an emergency

Individuals with uncontrolled Cushing’s Syndrome of any origin are at higher risk of infection in general. Although information on people with Cushing’s Syndrome and COVID-19 is scarce, given the rarity of the condition, those with Cushing’s Syndrome should strictly adhere to CDC recommendations:

  • Maintain social distancing to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19
  • If experiencing fever, cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms, call both the COVID-19 hotline (check your state government website for contact information) and your primary care physician or endocrinologist

In addition, people with either condition should continue to follow the general guidelines at these times:

  • Stay home as much as possible to reduce your risk of being exposed
    • When you do go out in public, avoid crowds and limit close contact with others
    • Avoid non-essential travel
  • Wash your hands with soap and water regularly, for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating or drinking and after using the restroom and blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing with a tissue or a flexed elbow, then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose when possible

From https://www.aace.com/recent-news-and-updates/aace-position-statement-coronavirus-covid-19-and-people-adrenal

[Pseudo-Cushing’s] Michigan woman nearly dies after herbal supplement found to be laced with steroids

MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WXYZ) – Since 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received more than 26,000 reports of adverse events and complaints about dietary supplements.

Jody Higgins of Madison Heights, Michigan made one of those complaints to the FDA, after she says she found out the herbs she had been taking were making her seriously ill.

“I really thought I was going to die I was getting so sick,” Higgins said.

Back in 2015, Higgins says her legs started hurting.  She says she didn’t have great health insurance, and she was hoping for a more holistic approach, so a friend referred her to Far East Ginseng Herbs and Tea in nearby Sterling Heights.

“They suggested that I take something that was called Linsen Double Caulis. I had never heard of it before, and it appeared to have all herbs on the label,” Higgins said.

Higgins says for a while, she felt better, and when she stopped taking the Linsen Double Caulis, the leg pain returned. So, she says she kept taking it for nearly a year, even though she started noticing strange symptoms.

“Within four months I had gained 80 pounds,” she said.

She suddenly had facial hair growth, severe facial swelling, extremely swollen ankles, and had dark purple stretch marks all over her body.

“I wasn’t recognizable,” said Higgins.  “I couldn’t stand for longer than 2 minutes. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t wash my clothing. I could barely get in the shower.”

After visiting several doctors, Higgins was eventually referred to University of Michigan Endocrinologist Dr. Ariel Barkan.

“The minute that I said I had been taking a Chinese herbal remedy, he said ‘you’ve been poisoned. I know it.’ Those were his exact words,” said Higgins.

“Her situation was pretty shaky,” Barkan said.

Barkan sent the Linsin Double Caulis herbal supplement to the Mayo Clinic for testing.

“They were loaded with Dexamethasone … [which] is a medication.  It’s a synthetic steroid, very potent, very long acting, and if we take it for quite some time, we develop what is called Cushing Syndrome,” said Dr. Barkan.

Higgins was diagnosed with Cushing Syndrome, and Barkan says she could have died if she hadn’t sought help.

“The mortality for untreated Cushing Syndrome is 50% within 5 years,” said Barkan.  “ … immunity is completely suppressed. And when you don’t have immunity, the first virus, the first germ may cause [a] fatal infection and you will die.”

Higgins says once she stopped taking the Linsen Double Caulis, the facial hair went away, but she’s still struggling with her weight. Barkan says her health should improve, although it will take time.

Both doctor and patient say they have contacted the FDA about this, and they each have a warning about taking herbal supplements.

“Please just be very cautious,” Higgins said.

“Don’t touch it. Don’t touch it, you’re playing Russian roulette,” said Barkan.

Jody Higgins says she met with an investigator from the FDA’s criminal division.

An FDA spokesperson would only say that they do not discuss possible or ongoing investigations.

The lawyer for the store where Higgins says she purchased the supplement told us the owners will not be commenting on, but the owner did say they no longer sell this product.

From http://www.fox4now.com/news/national/madison-heights-woman-herbal-supplement-caused-life-threatening-illness

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