The pathogenesis of the marked pulmonary microvasculature injury, a distinguishing feature of COVID-19 acute respiratory distress syndrome (COVID-ARDS), remains unclear. Implicated in the pathophysiology of diverse diseases characterized by endothelial damage, including ARDS and ischemic cardiovascular disease, ceramide and in particular palmitoyl ceramide (C16:0-ceramide) may be involved in the microvascular injury in COVID-19. Using deidentified plasma and lung samples from COVID-19 patients, ceramide profiling by mass spectrometry was performed. Compared with healthy individuals, a specific 3-fold C16:0-ceramide elevation in COVID-19 patient plasma was identified. Compared with age-matched controls, autopsied lungs of individuals succumbing to COVID-ARDS displayed a massive 9-fold C16:0-ceramide elevation and exhibited a previously unrecognized microvascular ceramide-staining pattern and markedly enhanced apoptosis. In COVID-19 plasma and lungs, the C16-ceramide/C24-ceramide ratios were increased and reversed, respectively, consistent with increased risk of vascular injury. Indeed, exposure of primary human lung microvascular endothelial cell monolayers to C16:0-ceramide–rich plasma lipid extracts from COVID-19, but not healthy, individuals led to a significant decrease in endothelial barrier function. This effect was phenocopied by spiking healthy plasma lipid extracts with synthetic C16:0-ceramide and was inhibited by treatment with ceramide-neutralizing monoclonal antibody or single-chain variable fragment. These results indicate that C16:0-ceramide may be implicated in the vascular injury associated with COVID-19.
Irina Petrache, Elisabet Pujadas, Aditya Ganju, Karina A. Serban, Alexander Borowiec, Beatrice Babbs, Irina A. Bronova, Nicholas Egersdorf, Patrick S. Hume, Khushboo Goel, William J. Janssen, Evgeny V. Berdyshev, Carlos Cordon-Cardo, Richard Kolesnick