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Scientists produce images showing COVID-19's spread and impact on lung cells

COVID-19 impact on lung cells.jpg
Posted at 2:28 PM, Jan 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-05 14:28:31-05

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Deion Campbell remembers fighting for his life in March against COVID-19.

“It was life changing,” Campbell said. “You really don't expect certain things like to happen in your life.”

News 3 first introduced you to Campbell a couple of weeks ago. At 26, he went to the hospital for a fever and at one point was being kept alive by a ventilator.

“I ended up developing blood clots in my lungs, so that was a direct effect from COVID,” he said.

He's now dealing with fatigue while recovering from the virus. One thing Campbell recalls when battling COVID-19 was his breathing issues.

"I just remember vaguely, the breathing itself, it just felt like someone turned the heat on outside, like the sun was just beaming,” Campbell said.

Dr. Camille Ehre and others at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine produced images, showing lung cells infected by SARS-CoV-2.

“We want to tell the story,” Ehre, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UNC School of Medicine, said. “We wanted to see close up how was the virus interacting with those airway cells.”

The images show what are called cilia cells, which are cells within the airways in either the lung or nasal cavity. The pictures show different colors showing mucous and the cell, and red representing COVID-19 and its impact on the cells.

UNC COVID-19 lung effect study
UNC COVID-19 lung effect study

“We are looking at the cells from above,” Ehre said. “Imagine you are flying a drone above a forest, basically, and you are seeing a lot of trees, and you're looking for poisonous apples on top of those trees. And those are the SARS-CoV-2 viruses.”

“Their [cilia cells] role is to actually clear pathogens out of the lungs, but here they are taken over by the virus. They are completely hijacked,” Ehre added. “They become a virus factory, basically.”

Ehre said these visuals illustrate the need to wear masks, especially as vaccines roll out.

“Those images are there to educate the public to understand that we start infecting nasal cells first, and we can be completely asymptomatic,” she said. “We might just have tons of viral particles coming out of the nose, and people don't even know they have the virus yet.”

Meanwhile, Campbell believes research like this can help lead to more answers.

This story originally reported by Zak Dahlheimer on WTKR.com.

Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering