Chagas disease is a parasite-spread infection affecting 300,000 people in the United States. It’s largely a silent scourge, remaining mostly asymptomatic but causing long-running damage to the hearts of unsuspecting patients. Spread through the feces of the kissing bug, the disease is a major problem in Latin America, where an estimated 8 million people are infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Curiously, it appears to have a potential upside in the COVID-19 era, as it may actually be protective against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Jyothi Nagajyothi, Ph.D., a scientist at the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) investigates Chagas disease, as well as other diseases relating to fat in the body. The lab has also studied the infectious disease at the global forefront these last two years: COVID-19.
According to her recent paper, having a pre-existing Chagas infection is actually somewhat protective against SARS-CoV-2’s potentially damaging effects in the heart. The paper in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine shows in mice that Chaga-infected heart showed lower viral loads of SARS-CoV-2.
“The significantly reduced viral load in the hearts of coinfected mice may be due to the altered immune and metabolic changes caused by T. cruzi infection during acute and indeterminate stages,” Nagajyothi and colleagues write.
Nagajyothi’s work with colleagues has long explored Chagas and how its parasite damages the heart, long-term, via adipose (fat tissue) pathways. The team has also started to point the best way forward for clinicians to offset such damage.
Chagas disease is somewhat deceptive – and can go overlooked for years. During the acute phase, parasites may be found in the circulating blood. This phase of infection is usually mild or asymptomatic. But following the acute phase, most infected people enter into a prolonged asymptomatic form of disease. During this time, most people are unaware of their infection. Many people may remain asymptomatic for life and never develop Chagas-related symptoms. But an estimated 20–30% of infected people develop severe and sometimes deadly conditions later on, including heart rhythm abnormalities and even sudden death, and a dilated heart with limited ability to pump blood.
This provocative work opens a window on how host-microbe interactions that may protect people in unforeseen ways.