Background: Immunosuppressive and anti-cytokine treatment may have a protective effect for patients with COVID-19. Understanding the immune cell states shared between COVID-19 and other inflammatory diseases with established therapies may help nominate immunomodulatory therapies.
Methods: To identify cellular phenotypes that may be shared across tissues affected by disparate inflammatory diseases, we developed a meta-analysis and integration pipeline that models and removes the effects of technology, tissue of origin, and donor that confound cell-type identification. Using this approach, we integrated > 300,000 single-cell transcriptomic profiles from COVID-19-affected lungs and tissues from healthy subjects and patients with five inflammatory diseases: rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn's disease (CD), ulcerative colitis (UC), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and interstitial lung disease. We tested the association of shared immune states with severe/inflamed status compared to healthy control using mixed-effects modeling. To define environmental factors within these tissues that shape shared macrophage phenotypes, we stimulated human blood-derived macrophages with defined combinations of inflammatory factors, emphasizing in particular antiviral interferons IFN-beta (IFN-β) and IFN-gamma (IFN-γ), and pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF.
Results: We built an immune cell reference consisting of > 300,000 single-cell profiles from 125 healthy or disease-affected donors from COVID-19 and five inflammatory diseases. We observed a CXCL10+ CCL2+ inflammatory macrophage state that is shared and strikingly abundant in severe COVID-19 bronchoalveolar lavage samples, inflamed RA synovium, inflamed CD ileum, and UC colon. These cells exhibited a distinct arrangement of pro-inflammatory and interferon response genes, including elevated levels of CXCL10, CXCL9, CCL2, CCL3, GBP1, STAT1, and IL1B. Further, we found this macrophage phenotype is induced upon co-stimulation by IFN-γ and TNF-α.
Conclusions: Our integrative analysis identified immune cell states shared across inflamed tissues affected by inflammatory diseases and COVID-19. Our study supports a key role for IFN-γ together with TNF-α in driving an abundant inflammatory macrophage phenotype in severe COVID-19-affected lungs, as well as inflamed RA synovium, CD ileum, and UC colon, which may be targeted by existing immunomodulatory therapies.
Keywords: COVID-19; Inflammatory diseases; Macrophage heterogeneity; Macrophage stimulation; Single-cell multi-disease tissue integration; Single-cell transcriptomics.