Activation of STAT3 signaling pathway in the kidney of COVID-19 patients
Acute kidney injury is common in patients with COVID-19, however mechanisms of kidney injury remain unclear. Since cytokine storm is likely a cause of AKI and glomerular disease, we investigated the two major transcription factors, STAT3 and NF-kB, which are known to be activated by cytokines.
This is an observational study of the postmortem kidneys of 50 patients who died with COVID-19 in the Mount Sinai Hospital during the first pandemic surge. All samples were reviewed under light microscopy, electron microscopy, and immunofluorescence by trained renal pathologists. In situ hybridization evaluation for SARS-CoV-2 and immunostaining of transcription factors STAT3 and NF-kB were performed.
Consistent with previous findings, acute tubular injury was the major pathological finding, together with global or focal glomerulosclerosis. We were not able to detect SARS-CoV-2 in kidney cells. ACE2 expression was reduced in the tubular cells of patients who died with COVID-19 and did not co-localize with TMPRSS2. SARS-CoV-2 was identified occasionally in the mononuclear cells in the peritubular capillary and interstitium. STAT3 phosphorylation at Tyr705 was increased in 2 cases in the glomeruli and in 3 cases in the tubulointerstitial compartments. Interestingly, STAT3 phosphorylation at Ser727 increased in 9 cases but only in the tubulointerstitial compartment. A significant increase in NF-kB phosphorylation at Ser276 was also found in the tubulointerstitium of the two patients with increased p-STAT3 (Tyr705).
Our findings suggest that, instead of tyrosine phosphorylation, serine phosphorylation of STAT3 is commonly activated in the kidney of patients with COVID-19.