Although ACE2 (angiotensin converting enzyme 2) is considered the primary receptor for CoV-2 cell entry, recent reports suggest that alternative pathways may contribute. This paper considers the hypothesis that viral binding to cell-surface integrins may contribute to the high infectivity and widespread extra-pulmonary impacts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This potential is suggested on the basis of the emergence of an RGD (arginine-glycine-aspartate) sequence in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein. RGD is a motif commonly used by viruses to bind cell-surface integrins. Numerous signaling pathways are mediated by integrins and virion binding could lead to dysregulation of these pathways, with consequent tissue damage. Integrins on the surfaces of pneumocytes, endothelial cells and platelets may be vulnerable to CoV-2 virion binding. For instance, binding of intact virions to integrins on alveolar cells could enhance viral entry. Binding of virions to integrins on endothelial cells could activate angiogenic cell signaling pathways; dysregulate integrin-mediated signaling pathways controlling developmental processes; and precipitate endothelial activation to initiate blood clotting. Such a procoagulant state, perhaps together with enhancement of platelet aggregation through virions binding to integrins on platelets, could amplify the production of microthrombi that pose the threat of pulmonary thrombosis and embolism, strokes and other thrombotic consequences. The susceptibility of different tissues to virion–integrin interactions may be modulated by a host of factors, including the conformation of relevant integrins and the impact of the tissue microenvironment on spike protein conformation. Patient-specific differences in these factors may contribute to the high variability of clinical presentation. There is danger that the emergence of receptor-binding domain mutations that increase infectivity may also enhance access of the RGD motif for integrin binding, resulting in viral strains with ACE2 independent routes of cell entry and novel integrin-mediated biological and clinical impacts. The highly infectious variant, B.1.1.7 (or VUI 202012/01), includes a receptor-binding domain amino acid replacement, N501Y, that could potentially provide the RGD motif with enhanced access to cell-surface integrins, with consequent clinical impacts.
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