Mad About Science:

Angiotensin-converting enzymes

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

It’s another week of being alone together, and I’ve managed to remain more productive than usual.

Today we will be looking at angiotensin-converting enzymes, often simplified to ACE. Anyone who has struggled with chronic high blood pressure or is a fan of medical dramas has probably heard of an ACE inhibitor, which we will discuss later.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the relationship of ACE with COVID-19, and how the SARS-COV 2 virus utilizes these enzymes to infect cells and replicate inside them. 202

The way a virus works is that it will attach to a healthy cell. Generally, a virus targets and attacks very specific cells. SARS-COV 2 isn’t able to attack the cells responsible for making your toenails grow. Instead, this virus has evolved to target and infect the cells in our lungs — in particular, the cells in our lungs that serve the purpose of using hair-like protrusions called cilia to clear away mucus and debris.

The virus will inject the cell with genetic code, which tells the cell to utilize the material inside to create more viruses rather than perform its normal function.

Think of it in another way: Let’s pretend that your car isn’t running well. You pop open the hood and take a peek at the engine. It looks a little corroded on the surface but otherwise seems fine. You dig a little deeper into it and find that your pistons have been changed into bicycle pedals. The further you look into the car, the more you find that bicycle pedals have replaced its interior components. It turns out that leaving your bike in your trunk all winter infected your car with bicycliosis. 

Removing the bike simply won’t do, you now have to begin searching for and replacing the components inside your car that have been converted into bicycle parts. This is more or less what your immune system is tasked with every time you suffer from a viral infection.

This differs from virus to virus, and, as I always say, it’s far more complicated than that, but I have a word limit.

The people who appear to be most at risk for lethal complications from COVID-19 seem to be those who suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes (age also appears to be a major factor). It’s no coincidence that these conditions are all linked by a common factor: angiotensin-converting enzymes. 

These enzymes are part of the renin-angiotensin system, which regulates the hormones in your body that control your blood pressure. Given the systemic nature of blood in the human body, ACE receptors are in most of our cells and they appear to be what the SARS-COV 2 virus exploits to infect healthy cells to begin replication — beginning with our lungs. 

This problem is compounded when people are placed in a stressful situation, as the body will flood with hormones that often increase blood pressure, a survival response that can help us make more rapid (but not always the most healthy) decisions in crunch time.

However, this becomes detrimental to those exposed to chronic stress, such as the health care workers of America right now. This is why you will hear me often quote one of my favorite digital content creators, Doctor Mike: “Be alert, not anxious.”  

Studies have shown that stress, especially chronic stress, leads to severe damage to your immune system. In fact, in an effort to get out of the stressful situations it is exposed to on a repeated basis, the body will even sometimes create symptoms to influence the mind to seek help.

To touch on what I mentioned earlier about ACE inhibitors, they are certainly not a cure all for COVID-19 infection — such a thing does not yet exist, no matter what Aunt Sally says about her essential oil collection on Facebook. ACE inhibitors are medications designed to relax the enzymes, and thus help lower and properly regulate your blood pressure. However, given the delicate nature of everything our blood touches, ACE inhibitors can have detrimental effects to our bodies, ranging from coughing, fatigue, nausea or even kidney failure.

COVID-19 is still a new disease and our understanding of it is changing daily. By the time this article prints, a quarter of what’s in it could already be outdated. It’s important to be skeptical of what you read. If something makes you curious or gives you a sudden desire to spread it among your friends and family, take a moment to stop and research more about it from a bare minimum of two other sources. It’s not like we don’t have time to do that now.

I’d also like to stop and say thank you to all of our medical professionals on the front lines right now. I know that a thank-you from some nerd in the middle of nowhere means less than nothing, but I’m extremely grateful for these people, their passion and the hard work they’re doing to save lives in the face of this tremendous threat.

Finally, if you haven’t already, go check out Doctor Mike on Youtube. He recently interviewed 100 doctors dealing with COVID-19, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Danielle Jones — the latter another fantastic medical content director  better known online as Mama Doctor Jones.

To borrow a phrase from Doctor Mike: Stay alert, not anxious, 7B.

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