Background. Emerging evidences suggest that in severe COVID-19, multi-organ failure is associated with a hyperinflammatory state (the so-called “cytokine storm”) in combination with the development of a prothrombotic state. The central role of endothelial dysfunction in the pathogenesis of the disease is to date accepted, but the precise mechanisms underlying the associated coagulopathy remain unclear. Whether the alterations in vascular homeostasis directly depend upon the SARS-CoV-2 infection of endothelial cells or, rather, occur secondarily to the activation of the inflammatory response is still a matter of debate. Here, we address the effect of the SARS-CoV-2 spike S1 protein on the activation of human lung microvascular endothelial cells (HLMVEC). In particular, the existence of an endothelium-macrophage crosstalk in the response to the spike protein has been explored. Methods and Results. The effect of the spike protein is addressed in human lung microvascular endothelial cells (HLMVEC), either directly or after incubation with a conditioned medium (CM) of human monocyte-derived macrophages (MDM) previously activated by the spike S1 protein (CM-MDM). Both MDM and HLMVEC are activated in response to the S1 protein, with an increased expression of pro-inflammatory mediators. However, when HLMVEC are exposed to CM-MDM, an enhanced cell activation occurs in terms of the expression of adhesion molecules, pro-coagulant markers, and chemokines. Under this experimental condition, ICAM-1 and VCAM-1, the chemokines CXCL8/IL-8, CCL2/MCP1, and CXCL10/IP-10 as well as the protein tissue factor (TF) are markedly induced. Instead, a decrease of thrombomodulin (THBD) is observed. Conclusion. Our data suggest that pro-inflammatory mediators released by spike-activated macrophages amplify the activation of endothelial cells, likely contributing to the impairment of vascular integrity and to the development of a pro-coagulative endothelium.
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