Endothelial thrombomodulin downregulation caused by hypoxia contributes to severe infiltration and coagulopathy in COVID-19 patient lungs

Taejoon Won, Megan K. Wood, David M. Hughes, Monica V. Talor, Zexu Ma, Jowaly Schneider, John T. Skinner, Beejan Asady, Erin Goerlich, Marc Halushka, Allison G. Hays, Deok Ho Kim, Chirag R. Parikh, Avi Z. Rosenberg, Isabelle Coppens, Roger A. Johns, Nisha A. Gilotra, Jody Hooper, Andrew Pekosz, Daniela Čiháková

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Thromboembolism is a life-threatening manifestation of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). We investigated a dysfunctional phenotype of vascular endothelial cells in the lungs during COVID-19. Methods: We obtained the lung specimens from the patients who died of COVID-19. The phenotype of endothelial cells and immune cells was examined by flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry (IHC) analysis. We tested the presence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in the endothelium using IHC and electron microscopy. Findings: The autopsy lungs of COVID-19 patients exhibited severe coagulation abnormalities, immune cell infiltration, and platelet activation. Pulmonary endothelial cells of COVID-19 patients showed increased expression of procoagulant von Willebrand factor (VWF) and decreased expression of anticoagulants thrombomodulin and endothelial protein C receptor (EPCR). In the autopsy lungs of COVID-19 patients, the number of macrophages, monocytes, and T cells was increased, showing an activated phenotype. Despite increased immune cells, adhesion molecules such as ICAM-1, VCAM-1, E-selectin, and P-selectin were downregulated in pulmonary endothelial cells of COVID-19 patients. Notably, decreased thrombomodulin expression in endothelial cells was associated with increased immune cell infiltration in the COVID-19 patient lungs. There were no SARS-CoV-2 particles detected in the lung endothelium of COVID-19 patients despite their dysfunctional phenotype. Meanwhile, the autopsy lungs of COVID-19 patients showed SARS-CoV-2 virions in damaged alveolar epithelium and evidence of hypoxic injury. Interpretation: Pulmonary endothelial cells become dysfunctional during COVID-19, showing a loss of thrombomodulin expression related to severe thrombosis and infiltration, and endothelial cell dysfunction might be caused by a pathologic condition in COVID-19 patient lungs rather than a direct infection with SARS-CoV-2. Funding: This work was supported by the Johns Hopkins University, the American Heart Association, and the National Institutes of Health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103812
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • COVID-19
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • endothelial cell dysfunction
  • immunothrombosis
  • thrombomodulin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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