FEBRUARY 9, 2021 — UTSA scientists have discovered it might be possible for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to enter the human brain. The research was led by Jenny Hsieh, professor of biology, director of the UTSA Brain Health Consortium and the Semmes Foundation Chair in Cell Biology, in collaboration with Ricardo Carrion’s lab at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.
A symptom of COVID-19 is the loss of taste and smell, which contributed to Hsieh investigating if the coronavirus could directly infect the brain. Some patients with COVID-19 develop serious neurological complications, including nerve damage. Hsieh along with Courtney McMahon, a UTSA Ph.D. candidate in cell and molecular biology, created a unique laboratory model called brain organoids with different types of brain cells infected with small amounts of SARS-CoV-2. They found that the brain’s glial cells were susceptible to COVID-19 infection. Until UTSA’s discovery, there hadn’t been much scientific reporting on the glial cell and SARS-CoV-2 connection.
“Glial cells are extremely important support cells in the brain and we’re just now beginning to understand their role in infection and disease,” Hsieh said. “They modulate communication between nerve cells, form a barrier, and protect the brain from infection and chemicals that would harm nerve cells.”
Hsieh’s research also suggests that SARS-CoV-2 could be a threat to unborn children. Mother and fetus share the same circulatory system for a period of time in the womb. During this time, Hsieh believes the virus could be transmitted from an infected mother to the developing fetal brain via an entry protein found on glial cells called ACE2.
“The organoids we modeled resemble a baby’s brain during its second or third trimester of development,” said Hsieh. “It’s too early to tell what complications babies born with SARS-CoV-2 can develop, but we do need to keep a close eye on babies born from infected mothers.”
Because of the findings, Hsieh supports placing pregnant mothers among the highest priority for COVID-19 vaccinations.
These groundbreaking studies are a result of UTSA’s vision to become a nationally recognized research-intensive institution. An important step in reaching this goal was hiring Hsieh to lead the university’s Brain Health Consortium. Hsieh is working to advance pluripotent stem cell research and personalized medicine to develop new and innovative approaches to neurodegenerative disease.
“None of this research would be possible without the bold vision of UTSA’s leadership to establish our innovative human stem cell core facility on campus,” said Hsieh. “This takes advantage of our investment in this area along with the Brain Health Consortium and other related areas at the university.”
Hsieh’s findings were submitted in two reports. “Novel targets of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in human fetal brain development suggest early pregnancy vulnerability” was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience in January 2021. A second study, “SARS-CoV-2 targets glial cells in human cortical organoids,” is at press in Stem Cell Reports.
Next, Hsieh and her team will investigate the long-term effects of COVID-19 brain infection. One study is to replicate the study in humanized mice to see if glial cell infection shows up in an animal model. In addition, research is planned to understand long-term impact of COVID-19 in the brain by looking at nerve cell function.
Research for both papers by Hsieh was supported in part by the Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation. The foundation also provided funds to help establish UTSA’s human stem cell core facility.
The Racial Justice Book Club was established at UTSA by members of the campus community to explore social justice following acts of racial violence across the nation over the last few years. We are reading The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas by Monica Muñoz Martinez. We will meet every Wednesday in September and October at 2 pm on Zoom.Virtual Event
Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at our very own street fair - Calle UTSA. We will have activities, performances, food, music, and piñatas to break open.Student Union Paseo
"La Plática" is a space for thoughtful dialogue to build a sense of connection among the Roadrunner Community by getting to know each other better and sharing what's on our minds and about ourselves to increase to increase awareness of diverse perspectives.Virtual Event
This September 30, the Friday Series will feature Prof. Milena Ang, who will be presenting A Tren to Nowhere: Statistic Development and the Politics of Racial, a paper co-authored with Tania Islas-Weistein where they discuss Mexico's long history of state-led development projects that contribute to economic and racial inequality. The authors argue that despite professing racial justice, official discourses surrounding the Tren Maya reproduce existing symbolic and material forms of racism.McKinney Humanities (MH 4.01.01,) Main Campus
We invite you to learn about the process of screenwriting and explore the intersection of identity and pursuing dreams from Jorge Ramirez-Martinez and Raymond Perez, screenwriters for the Selena: The Series, released on Netflix. They will discuss their careers and writing process, including how their identities as Mexican American and gay men have shaped their professional experiences.Virtual Event
Please join us in remembering those who have entered the next part of life by designing a nicho box in their memory. This workshop will provide the necessary items to create your nicho box, though please remember to bring a photo or small object that can fit in a 3.5 x5x1 inch box (small jewelry box).John Peace Library GroupSpot B, Main Campus
LMSA invites you to join us in celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month through an interactive cooking lesson! This cultural experience will teach you how to prepare a popular Mexican dish, street taquitos. You will be able to sample this dish and learn the recipe to use in your own home.Recreation Wellness Center Demo Kitchen
The University of Texas at San Antonio is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through research and discovery, teaching and learning, community engagement and public service. As an institution of access and excellence, UTSA embraces multicultural traditions and serves as a center for intellectual and creative resources as well as a catalyst for socioeconomic development and the commercialization of intellectual property - for Texas, the nation and the world.
To be a premier public research university, providing access to educational excellence and preparing citizen leaders for the global environment.
We encourage an environment of dialogue and discovery, where integrity, excellence, inclusiveness, respect, collaboration and innovation are fostered.
UTSA is a proud Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) as designated by the U.S. Department of Education.
The University of Texas at San Antonio, a Hispanic Serving Institution situated in a global city that has been a crossroads of peoples and cultures for centuries, values diversity and inclusion in all aspects of university life. As an institution expressly founded to advance the education of Mexican Americans and other underserved communities, our university is committed to ending generations of discrimination and inequity. UTSA, a premier public research university, fosters academic excellence through a community of dialogue, discovery and innovation that embraces the uniqueness of each voice.