coronavirus, COVID-19
Image Credit: Reuters

When the coronavirus infects cells, it not only impairs their activity but can also change their function, new findings suggest.

For example, when insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas become infected with the virus, they not only produce much less insulin than usual, but also start to produce glucose and digestive enzymes, which is not their job, researchers found.

"We call this a change of cell fate," said study leader Dr. Shuibing Chen, who described the work in a presentation on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, held virtually this year. It is not clear whether the changes are long-lasting, or if they might be reversible, the researchers noted earlier in a report published in Cell Metabolism.

Chen noted that some COVID-19 survivors have developed diabetes shortly after infection. "It is definitely worth investigating the rate of new-onset diabetes patients in this COVID-19 pandemic," she said in a statement.

Her team has been experimenting with the coronavirus in clusters of cells engineered to create mini-organs, or organoids, that resemble the lungs, liver, intestines, heart and nervous system. Their findings suggest loss of cell fate/function may be happening in lung tissues as well, Chen, from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, told Reuters.