SARS-CoV-2 Inhibits NRF2-Mediated Antioxidant Responses in Airway Epithelial Cells and in the Lung of a Murine Model of Infection

Yue Qu, Aline Haas de Mello, Dorothea R. Morris, Yava L. Jones-Hall, Teodora Ivanciuc, Rachel A. Sattler, Slobodan Paessler, Vineet D. Menachery, Roberto P. Garofalo, Antonella Casola

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Several viruses have been shown to modulate the transcription factor nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (NRF2), the master regulator of redox homeostasis. The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, also seems to disrupt the balance between oxidants and antioxidants, which likely contributes to lung damage. Using in vitro and in vivo models of infection, we investigated how SARS-CoV-2 modulates the transcription factor NRF2 and its dependent genes, as well as the role of NRF2 during SARS-CoV-2 infection. We found that SARS-CoV-2 infection downregulates NRF2 protein levels and NRF2-dependent gene expression in human airway epithelial cells and in lungs of BALB/c mice. Reductions in cellular levels of NRF2 seem to be independent of proteasomal degradation and the interferon/promyelocytic leukemia (IFN/PML) pathway. Furthermore, lack of the Nrf2 gene in SARS-CoV-2-infected mice exacerbates clinical disease, increases lung inflammation, and is associated with a trend toward increased lung viral titers, indicating that NRF2 has a protective role during this viral infection. In summary, our results suggest that SARS-CoV-2 infection alters the cellular redox balance by downregulating NRF2 and its dependent genes, which exacerbates lung inflammation and disease, therefore, suggesting that the activation of NRF2 could be explored as therapeutic approach during SARS-CoV-2 infection. IMPORTANCE The antioxidant defense system plays a major function in protecting the organism against oxidative damage caused by free radicals. COVID-19 patients often present with biochemical characteristics of uncontrolled pro-oxidative responses in the respiratory tract. We show herein that SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron, are potent inhibitors of cellular and lung nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (NRF2), the master transcription factor that controls the expression of antioxidant and cytoprotective enzymes. Moreover, we show that mice lacking the Nrf2 gene show increased clinical signs of disease and lung pathology when infected with a mouse-adapted strain of SARS-CoV-2. Overall, this study provides a mechanistic explanation for the observed unbalanced pro-oxidative response in SARS-CoV-2 infections and suggests that therapeutic strategies for COVID-19 may consider the use of pharmacologic agents that are known to boost the expression levels of cellular NRF2.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalMicrobiology Spectrum
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2023


  • COVID-19
  • NRF2
  • Nrf2-deficient mice
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • antioxidant enzymes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Ecology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • Genetics
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Cell Biology
  • Infectious Diseases


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