Gastroenterology
by the AGA Institute. Published by Elsevier Inc.
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Mortality From Coronavirus Disease 2019 Increases With Unsaturated Fat and May Be Reduced by Early Calcium and Albumin Supplementation
DOI 10.1053/j.gastro.2020.05.057, Volume: 159, Issue: 3,

Table of Contents

Highlights

Notes

El-Kurdi, Khatua, Rood, Snozek, Cartin-Ceba, Singh, and Lipotoxicity in COVID-19 Study GroupEl-KurdiBaraKhatuaBiswajitRoodChristopherSnozekChristineKostenkoSergiyTrivediShubhamFolmesCliffordDykhouseKatherine MinterBabarSumbalChangYu-HuiPannalaRahulCartin-CebaRodrigoSinghVijay P.: Mortality From Coronavirus Disease 2019 Increases With Unsaturated Fat and May Be Reduced by Early Calcium and Albumin Supplementation

See editorial on page 824.

What You Need to Know

Background and context

While most COVID-19 patients clear the infection, some develop severe disease with organ failure. Based on patterns associated with severe COVID-19, underlying mechanisms, we propose a simple, low risk supportive intervention.

New Findings

Unsaturated fat intake is associated with increased mortality from COVID-19. Unsaturated fatty acids cause injury, organ failure resembling COVID-19. Early albumin and calcium can bind unsaturated fatty acids, reduce injury.

Limitations

We do not have a clinical trial to support that “keeping a normal serum calcium and albumin all through COVID-19” improved mortality. Such a trial may be helpful in the future.

Impact

Both calcium and albumin are inexpensive, and easily available. If supplemented early during COVID-19 hospitalization, these may reduce organ failure and ICU requirements despite a lack of proven anti-viral therapies.

Although most coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections are self-limited, some develop into sepsis and multisystem organ failure (MSOF),1 resembling lipotoxic acute pancreatitis.2, 3 Understanding underlying mechanisms may guide supportive care while clinical trials are ongoing. Unsaturated fatty acids (UFAs) generated by adipose lipolysis2, 3 cause MSOF, including acute lung injury.2 Severe acute pancreatitis and severe COVID-19 share obesity as a risk factor,4 along with lipase elevation,5 hypoalbuminemia,1 and hypocalcemia.6 The latter 2 may progress undetected because calcium-albumin correction calculations (eg, https://www.mdcalc.com/calcium-correction-hypoalbuminemia) can pseudonormalize calcium values (eg, uncorrected calcium of 5.9 mg/dL and albumin of 0.1 g/dL to corrected calcium of 9.0 mg/dL). Notably, calcium ameliorates MSOF,7 and UFAs cause nonendocrine hypocalcemia.7

The ACE2 receptor resides on adipocytes8 containing triglycerides and adipocyte triglyceride lipase (ATGL) and on pancreatic acini expressing pancreatic triglyceride lipase (PNLIP).2 Both oleic acid (C18:1) administration and adipose lipolysis3 by PNLIP can cause acute lung injury and MSOF. These, and previous data showing that UFAs depolarize mitochondria,2 inhibit complexes I and V,3 decrease adenosine triphosphate, release intracellular calcium,3 and increase inflammatory mediators,3 made us explore lipotoxicity during severe COVID-19. This approach, culminating in clinical advice to keep calcium and albumin levels normal from early on in the disease, is summarized in Figure 1A and explained diagrammatically in supplementary figure 1.

(A) Schematic summarizing the study’s approach. (B) Time course starting at the day of admission or –4 days (which ever came first) leading to the event on day 0, which is the day of discharge, death, or ICU admission. The green lines show the trends of those who were discharged to home, and the red lines show those who were transferred to the ICU or died. The AM laboratory test results collected on the day of dismissal are shown as day 1 to allow comparison of the trend. The upper panel shows the lowest oxygen saturation measured on pulse oximetry (Sao2) in those admitted to the ICU. Also shown are total serum calcium (middle panel), and serum albumin (lower panel). ∗Significant (P < .05) difference for the whole time course matched for each day when comparing red and green values on t test. ǂSignificant difference from admission or day –4. (C) Relationship of peak unbound fatty acids in ICU patients vs the ratio of partial pressure of oxygen to the percentage of oxygen being delivered (P/F ratio). (D) Parameters in mice given LA (C18:2), or palmitic acid (C16:0) at the mentioned doses. ∗P < .05, ∗∗P < .01, ∗∗∗P < .001, ∗∗∗∗P < .0001 on 1-way analysis of variance compared to controls. There were 8 mice per group. The terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase–mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate nick-end labeling staining was done on paraffin sections of the spleen, and the percentage of positive cells in the white pulp was quantified. A drop in carotid artery distention supports hypotension and, when extreme, shock. Mice in the control and C16:0 groups were electively killed at 72 hours. (E) Univariate analysis of risk factors to percent mortality from COVID-19: each row mentions the parameter analyzed on the extreme left. The columns show the rate ratios, along with the 95% confidence intervals and P values for all countries with >1000 COVID cases reported between March 25, 2020, and April 8, 2020. (F, G) Graphical presentation (marginal plots) of countries showing the association between percent mortality from COVID-19 and (F) percent dietary unsaturated fat intake and (G) dietary saturated fat intake. The blue line is the expected value of the mortality change with respect to the value of saturated fat or percent UFA. The dots are the daily data. (H, I) Images of the induced-fit docking simulations of the (H) LA (C18:2) triglyceride of LLL and (I) 1,2-dilinoleoyl-3-palmitoyl-rac-glycerol (LLP) docked into the catalytic pocket (dark gray) of ATGL by using Schrodinger Maestro. The dashed line shows the distance of the triglyceride’s primary carbonyl group in angstroms from the catalytic serine (SER47). (J, K) Bar graphs with standard deviation from HUV-EC-C cell monolayers exposed for 2 hours to 100 μmol/L of the fatty acid below the respective bar showing (J) transendothelial cell electrical resistance and (K) leakage of 10-kD dextran from the upper chamber into the lower chamber. The leakage induced by 1% Triton-X 100 was taken as 100%. ∗P < .05 vs control in t test. Each point for a condition represents a separate experiment. (L) Percentage of peripheral blood mononuclear cells staining positive for Annexin V after a 60-minute treatment with 100 μmol/L of the fatty acid below the respective bar. (M) Time series (images above, graph below), of Fluo-4AM-loaded cardiomyocytes showing the change in florescence signal after the addition of 150 μmol/L LA (C18:2; yellow rectangle in images ). (N) Representative thermograms showing the heat rate of albumin interacting with C18:2 (red lines) with thermodynamic parameters in the inset box. Also shown are thermograms of albumin injection into HEPES buffer (green line) and buffer injection into buffer (black line). (O) The effect of adding 160 μmol/L albumin 30 minutes after adding 100 μmol/L LA on lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) leakage from J774 A.1 cells. (P) The effect of preincubating HEK293 cells with 160 μmol/L albumin and 2 mmol/L calcium (LA + Alb) on 100 μmol/L LA-induced injury (LA 100). (Q, R) Representative curves showing the effect of adding 160 μmol/L albumin 300 seconds (Q) after inducing ψm by different concentrations of LA in HEK293 cells or (R) after 150 seconds in pancreatic acinar cells. CI, confidence interval; Em, emission; Ex, excitation; ICU, intensive care unit; M, mol/L; OA, oleic acid; PA, palmitic acid; PBMC, peripheral blood mononuclear cells; Sec., seconds; TEER, transendothelial cell electrical resistance.
Figure 1
(A) Schematic summarizing the study’s approach. (B) Time course starting at the day of admission or –4 days (which ever came first) leading to the event on day 0, which is the day of discharge, death, or ICU admission. The green lines show the trends of those who were discharged to home, and the red lines show those who were transferred to the ICU or died. The AM laboratory test results collected on the day of dismissal are shown as day 1 to allow comparison of the trend. The upper panel shows the lowest oxygen saturation measured on pulse oximetry (Sao2) in those admitted to the ICU. Also shown are total serum calcium (middle panel), and serum albumin (lower panel). ∗Significant (P < .05) difference for the whole time course matched for each day when comparing red and green values on t test. ǂSignificant difference from admission or day –4. (C) Relationship of peak unbound fatty acids in ICU patients vs the ratio of partial pressure of oxygen to the percentage of oxygen being delivered (P/F ratio). (D) Parameters in mice given LA (C18:2), or palmitic acid (C16:0) at the mentioned doses. ∗P < .05, ∗∗P < .01, ∗∗∗P < .001, ∗∗∗∗P < .0001 on 1-way analysis of variance compared to controls. There were 8 mice per group. The terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase–mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate nick-end labeling staining was done on paraffin sections of the spleen, and the percentage of positive cells in the white pulp was quantified. A drop in carotid artery distention supports hypotension and, when extreme, shock. Mice in the control and C16:0 groups were electively killed at 72 hours. (E) Univariate analysis of risk factors to percent mortality from COVID-19: each row mentions the parameter analyzed on the extreme left. The columns show the rate ratios, along with the 95% confidence intervals and P values for all countries with >1000 COVID cases reported between March 25, 2020, and April 8, 2020. (F, G) Graphical presentation (marginal plots) of countries showing the association between percent mortality from COVID-19 and (F) percent dietary unsaturated fat intake and (G) dietary saturated fat intake. The blue line is the expected value of the mortality change with respect to the value of saturated fat or percent UFA. The dots are the daily data. (H, I) Images of the induced-fit docking simulations of the (H) LA (C18:2) triglyceride of LLL and (I) 1,2-dilinoleoyl-3-palmitoyl-rac-glycerol (LLP) docked into the catalytic pocket (dark gray) of ATGL by using Schrodinger Maestro. The dashed line shows the distance of the triglyceride’s primary carbonyl group in angstroms from the catalytic serine (SER47). (J, K) Bar graphs with standard deviation from HUV-EC-C cell monolayers exposed for 2 hours to 100 μmol/L of the fatty acid below the respective bar showing (J) transendothelial cell electrical resistance and (K) leakage of 10-kD dextran from the upper chamber into the lower chamber. The leakage induced by 1% Triton-X 100 was taken as 100%. ∗P < .05 vs control in t test. Each point for a condition represents a separate experiment. (L) Percentage of peripheral blood mononuclear cells staining positive for Annexin V after a 60-minute treatment with 100 μmol/L of the fatty acid below the respective bar. (M) Time series (images above, graph below), of Fluo-4AM-loaded cardiomyocytes showing the change in florescence signal after the addition of 150 μmol/L LA (C18:2; yellow rectangle in images ). (N) Representative thermograms showing the heat rate of albumin interacting with C18:2 (red lines) with thermodynamic parameters in the inset box. Also shown are thermograms of albumin injection into HEPES buffer (green line) and buffer injection into buffer (black line). (O) The effect of adding 160 μmol/L albumin 30 minutes after adding 100 μmol/L LA on lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) leakage from J774 A.1 cells. (P) The effect of preincubating HEK293 cells with 160 μmol/L albumin and 2 mmol/L calcium (LA + Alb) on 100 μmol/L LA-induced injury (LA 100). (Q, R) Representative curves showing the effect of adding 160 μmol/L albumin 300 seconds (Q) after inducing ψm by different concentrations of LA in HEK293 cells or (R) after 150 seconds in pancreatic acinar cells. CI, confidence interval; Em, emission; Ex, excitation; ICU, intensive care unit; M, mol/L; OA, oleic acid; PA, palmitic acid; PBMC, peripheral blood mononuclear cells; Sec., seconds; TEER, transendothelial cell electrical resistance.

Results

Hypocalcemia and Hypoalbuminemia Occur Early During Severe Coronavirus Disease 2019

Seven of 15 hospitalized patients were discharged home by 3. 4 ±1.6 days. One died of hypoxemic failure after declining intubation. Seven patients with severe disease required intensive care (mean, 3.9 ± 2 days after admission). Although otherwise similar to those with mild disease, severely ill patients had higher blood urea nitrogen (BUN) level; lower platelets and lymphocytes (Supplementary Figure 2); early, steady progressive hypocalcemia and hypoalbuminemia; and lower oxygen saturation nadirs (Figure 1B ). Mice administered linoleic acid (LA) (C18:2) (Supplementary Figure 3A ) but not the saturated fatty acid C16:0 developed hypoalbuminemia. Because albumin and calcium bind fatty acids and reduce toxicity,7 we graphed serum unbound fatty acids in patients in the intensive care unit (Figure 1C) vs their P/F ratio (ie, the arterial partial pressure of oxygen/percentage of oxygen). Lower P/F ratios (0.97 ± 0.1) were associated with higher unbound fatty acid levels (15.5 ± 7.7 μmol/L vs 4.2 ± 2.3 μmol/L; P < .002), and vice versa (2.36 ± 0.4; P < .003).

Unsaturated Fatty Acids Cause Multisystem Organ Failure and Inflammation Resembling Severe Coronavirus Disease 2019

C18:1, C18:2, and C16:0 make up 10%–50% of dietary fat and adipose triglycerides in humans. Mice given C18:1 (not shown) or C18:2, but not C16:0, (Figure 1D ) developed leucopenia, lymphopenia,1 lymphocytic injury, relative thrombocytopenia,1 hypercytokinemia,1 elevated alanine aminotransferase levels,1 hypoalbuminemia1, hypocalcemia6, shock,1 and renal failure resembling lethal COVID-19.

Mortality From Coronavirus Disease 2019 Correlates With Dietary Unsaturated Fat Intake; Saturated Fat Is Protective

Because adipose triglyceride composition corresponds to dietary fat composition, we compared dietary fat patterns to other risk factors for COVID-19 mortality from countries with >1000 COVID-19 cases reported between March 25, 2020, and April 8, 2020 (61 countries; 1,476,418 patients).

We first did a univariate analysis using the linear mixed model, accounting for daily reported percent mortality vs dietary and other factors (Figure 1E). Because of skewness, log-transformed mortality was used in the model. Only saturated fat intake (kg/capita/y) was negatively associated (P = .05), and percent UFA intake was positively associated (P < .001) with mortality (Figure 1F and G). The rate ratio indicates the relative change in mortality for each parameter; for example, a rate ratio of 0.97 for saturated fat intake indicates that for a 1-unit increase in saturated fat, there is a 3% reduction in mortality: (1 – 0.97) × 100% = 3%. Multivariate analysis showed only percent UFA as significantly associated with mortality (P < .0001).

Interestingly, per capita GDP consistently and positively correlated with tests/million (not shown), and COVID-19 cases/million (Supplementary Figure 3B), with the infliction point noted above US$10,000. Thus, COVID-19 may be undiagnosed in low-income countries.

We next studied how dietary and adipose triglyceride saturation could protect from severe COVID-19.

Saturated Fatty Acids in Triglycerides Impede Interaction With Adipocyte Triglyceride Lipase

Because it is not known which lipase is active in COVID-19, we examined how saturation affects triglyceride interaction with ATGL. On unbiased in silico docking simulation, the linoleic acid triglyceride trilinolein (LLL) docked to the ATGL homology model with a GlideScore of –6.71 kcal/mol and 7.02 Å between the catalytic Ser47 hydroxyl and the carbonyl C atom of the glycerol backbone (Figure 1H ). Substituting palmitate at Sn-3, 1,2-dilinoleoyl-3-palmitoyl-racglycerol (LLP) docked with a GlideScore of –3.34 kcal/mol and 8.49 Å from the catalytic serine (Figure 1I). Thus, saturation reduces lipolysis by making the complex less energetically and structurally favorable.

Unsaturated Fatty Acids Injure and Impede Cell Functions; Albumin Binding Prevents but Does Not Reverse Injury

Exposure of an established human umbilical vein endothelial cell (HUV-EC-C) cell monolayer to UFAs decreased transendothelial resistance and increased dextran permeability and apoptotic peripheral blood mononuclear cells (Figure 1JL ). LA increased the baseline and frequency of cytosolic calcium elevation in spontaneously beating cardiomyocytes (Figure 1M). Thus, UFAs may cause vascular (albumin) leak, inflammatory injury, and arrhythmia during severe COVID-19.

On isothermal titration calorimetry, albumin-bound LA strongly (stoichiometry ≈ 6:1; enthalpy, –230 KJ/mol) (Figure 1N ). However, adding albumin 30 minutes after LA to macrophages did not reduce necrosis. Although preincubating HEK293 cells with albumin and calcium (Figure 1O and P ) completely prevented necrosis, delayed addition of albumin only partially blocked or reversed LA-induced mitochondrial depolarization2 (Figure 1Q and R ). Therefore, early neutralization of UFAs may prevent mitochondrial dysfunction and injury resulting in MSOF.3 In vivo, prophylactic calcium and albumin prevented LA-induced MSOF (not shown). Thus, early supplementation with albumin and calcium may be better than correcting deficiencies later during severe COVID-19 infection or sepsis, which may be too little, too late.

Discussion

Calcium binds C18:2 more weakly7 (–20 kJ/mol) than albumin. However, calcium’s total concentration (2.25–2.75 mmol/L) is 3–5 times higher, and it ameliorates MSOF.7 Thus, supplementing calcium (eg, oral calcium carbonate) and albumin to normal values early during COVID-196 could reduce lipotoxic MSOF without violating the calcium-albumin correction. Despite COVID-19 being underdiagnosed in lower-income countries, mortality in diagnosed COVID-19 is likely from the infection and, thus, supports our conclusions. Additionally, while we did incorporate the number of ventilators per country, the numbers quoted are in some cases more than 8 years old, and therefore may not be reliable. Similarly, the number of ICU beds available may not reflect the exact number in each country. Although our clinical study is small and retrospective and experimental studies are correlative, their congruence to severe COVID-19 is supported by larger published studies1, 6 and can be validated by future interventional studies. Thus, keeping calcium and albumin levels normal through COVID-19 is a low-cost, low-risk strategy to improve outcomes.

References

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Supplementary References

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    de Oliveira C., Khatua B., Noel P.. Pancreatic triglyceride lipase mediates lipotoxic systemic inflammation. J Clin Invest 130: 2020. , pp.1931-1947

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    Khatua B., Yaron J.R., El-Kurdi B.. Ringer’s lactate prevents early organ failure by providing extracellular calcium. J Clin Med 9: 1 2020. , pp.263

3 

    Khatua B., Trivedi R.N., Noel P.. Carboxyl ester lipase may not mediate lipotoxic injury during severe acute pancreatitis. Am J Pathol 189: 2019. , pp.1226-1240

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    Navina S., Acharya C., DeLany J.P.. Lipotoxicity causes multisystem organ failure and exacerbates acute pancreatitis in obesity. Sci Transl Med 3: 107 2011. , pp.107ra110

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    Singh V.P., Bren G.D., Algeciras-Schimnich A.. Nelfinavir/ritonavir reduces acinar injury but not inflammation during mouse caerulein pancreatitis. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 296: 2009. , pp.G1040-G1046

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    Patel K., Durgampudi C., Noel P.. Fatty acid ethyl esters are less toxic than their parent fatty acids generated during acute pancreatitis. Am J Pathol 186: 2016. , pp.874-884

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Acknowledgments

Lipotoxicity in COVID-19 Study Group contributors: Bara El-Kurdi, Biswajit Khatua, Christopher Rood, Christine Snozek, Sergiy Kostenko, Shubham Trivedi, Clifford Folmes, Katherine Minter Dykhouse, Sumbal Babar, Yu-Hui Chang, Rahul Pannala, Rodrigo Cartin-Ceba, and Vijay P. Singh.

We are extremely thankful to Jill Lauritsen, Sheila Sandolo, and the staff at the Mayo Clinic Arizona Biospecimen repository and accession core for their help. We acknowledge the websites worldometers.info/coronavirus, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus resource center (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/), Wikipedia.com, the World Bank website (https://data.worldbank.org/) and World Health Organization website (https://apps.who.int/gho/data/view.main.HS07v) and data publicly provided by www.ourworldindata.org/.

CRediT Authorship Contributions

Bara El-Kurdi, MD (Data curation: Equal; Investigation: Equal; Methodology: Equal; Writing – original draft: Equal); Biswajit Khatua, PhD (Data curation: Equal; Investigation: Equal; Methodology: Equal); Christopher Rood, BS (Data curation: Equal; Formal analysis: Equal; Methodology: Equal); Christine Snozek, PhD (Data acquisition -Equal, Methodology: Equal, Writing – subsequent draft: Equal); Rodrigo Cartin-Ceba, MD (Data curation: Equal; Funding acquisition: Equal; Investigation: Equal; Methodology: Equal; Project administration: Equal; Supervision: Equal; Writing – original draft: Supporting); Vijay P. Singh, M.D. (Conceptualization: Lead; Data curation: Lead; Formal analysis: Lead; Funding acquisition: Lead; Investigation: Lead; Methodology: Lead; Project administration: Lead; Resources: Lead; Supervision: Lead; Validation: Lead; Visualization: Lead; Writing – original draft: Lead); The Lipotoxicity in COVID-19 Study Group (Data curation: Equal; Formal analysis: Equal; Investigation).

Notes

Conflicts of interest: The authors disclose no conflicts.
Funding: This project was supported by the following: R01DK092460, R01DK119646 from the 10.13039/100000062National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, PR151612 from the Department of Defense (to Vijay P. Singh), and intramural support from the Mayo Foundation. Intramural funding from the Center for Biomedical Discovery Science Award (to Vijay P. Singh and Clifford Folmes) and MEGA award (to Rodrigo Cartin-Ceba) also contributed to the project.
Author names in bold designate shared co-first authorship.
Note: To access the supplementary material accompanying this article, visit the online version of Gastroenterology at www.gastrojournal.org, and at https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2020.05.057.
https://www.researchpad.co/tools/openurl?pubtype=article&doi=10.1053/j.gastro.2020.05.057&title=Mortality From Coronavirus Disease 2019 Increases With Unsaturated Fat and May Be Reduced by Early Calcium and Albumin Supplementation&author=Bara El-Kurdi,Biswajit Khatua,Christopher Rood,Christine Snozek,Rodrigo Cartin-Ceba,Vijay P. Singh,Bara El-Kurdi,Biswajit Khatua,Christopher Rood,Christine Snozek,Sergiy Kostenko,Shubham Trivedi,Clifford Folmes,Katherine Minter Dykhouse,Sumbal Babar,Yu-Hui Chang,Rahul Pannala,Rodrigo Cartin-Ceba,Vijay P. Singh,&keyword=Unsaturated,Fatty Acid,Coronavirus,Lipotoxicity,ATGL, adipocyte triglyceride lipase,BUN, blood urea nitrogen,COVID-19, coronavirus disease 2019,LA, linoleic acid,LLP, 1,2-dilinoleoyl-3-palmitoyl-racglycerol,MSOF, multisystem organ failure,PNLIP, pancreatic triglyceride lipase,UFA, unsaturated fatty acid,&subject=Original Research,Full Report: Basic and Translational—Pancreas,