Geroscience. 2022 Sep 16. doi: 10.1007/s11357-022-00649-6. Online ahead of print.
Severe cases of COVID-19 are characterized by an inflammatory burst, which is accompanied by multiorgan failure. The elderly population has higher risk for severe or fatal outcome for COVID-19. Inflammatory mediators facilitate the immune system to combat viral infection by producing antibodies against viral antigens. Several studies reported that the pro-inflammatory state and tissue damage in COVID-19 also promotes autoimmunity by autoantibody generation. We hypothesized that a subset of these autoantibodies targets cardiac antigens. Here we aimed to detect anti-cardiac autoantibodies in severe COVID-19 patients during hospitalization. For this purpose, 104 COVID-19 patients were recruited, while 40 heart failure patients with dilated cardiomyopathy and 20 patients with severe aortic stenosis served as controls. Patients were tested for anti-cardiac autoantibodies, using human heart homogenate as a bait. Follow-up samples were available in 29 COVID-19 patients. Anti-cardiac autoantibodies were detected in 68% (71 out of 104) of severe COVID-19 patients. Overall, 39% of COVID-19 patients had anti-cardiac IgG autoantibodies, while 51% had anti-cardiac autoantibodies of IgM isotype. Both IgG and IgM anti-cardiac autoantibodies were observed in 22% of cases, and multiple cardiac antigens were targeted in 38% of COVID-19 patients. These anti-cardiac autoantibodies targeted a diverse set of myocardial proteins, without apparent selectivity. As controls, heart failure patients (with dilated cardiomyopathy) had similar occurrence of IgG (45%, p = 0.57) autoantibodies, while significantly lower occurrence of IgM autoantibodies (30%, p = 0.03). Patients with advanced aortic stenosis had significantly lower number of both IgG (11%, p = 0.03) and IgM (10%, p < 0.01) type anti-cardiac autoantibodies than that in COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, we detected changes in the anti-cardiac autoantibody profile in 7 COVID-19 patients during hospital treatment. Surprisingly, the presence of these anti-cardiac autoantibodies did not affect the clinical outcome and the prevalence of the autoantibodies did not differ between the elderly (over 65 years) and the patients younger than 65 years of age. Our results demonstrate that the majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients produce novel anti-cardiac IgM autoantibodies. COVID-19 also reactivates resident IgG autoantibodies. These autoantibodies may promote autoimmune reactions, which can complicate post-COVID recuperation, contributing to post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (long COVID).