TMPRSS2, a SARS-CoV-2 internalization protease is downregulated in head and neck cancer patients

Andrea Sacconi, Sara Donzelli, Claudio Pulito, Stefano Ferrero, Francesca Spinella, Aldo Morrone, Marta Rigoni, Fulvia Pimpinelli, Fabrizio Ensoli, Giuseppe Sanguineti, Raul Pellini, Nishant Agrawal, Evgeny Izumchenko, Gennaro Ciliberto, Aldo Giannì, Paola Muti, Sabrina Strano, Giovanni Blandino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: SARS-coronavirus-2 enters host cells through binding of the Spike protein to ACE2 receptor and subsequent S priming by the TMPRSS2 protease. We aim to assess differences in both ACE2 and TMPRSS2 expression in normal tissues from oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and lung tissues as well as neoplastic tissues from the same areas. METHODS: The study has been conducted using the TCGA and the Regina Elena Institute databases and validated by experimental model in HNSCC cells. We also included data from one COVID19 patient who went under surgery for HNSCC. RESULTS: TMPRSS2 expression in HNSCC was significantly reduced compared to the normal tissues. It was more evident in women than in men, in TP53 mutated versus wild TP53 tumors, in HPV negative patients compared to HPV positive counterparts. Functionally, we modeled the multivariate effect of TP53, HPV, and other inherent variables on TMPRSS2. All variables had a statistically significant independent effect on TMPRSS2. In particular, in tumor tissues, HPV negative, TP53 mutated status and elevated TP53-dependent Myc-target genes were associated with low TMPRSS2 expression. The further analysis of both TCGA and our institutional HNSCC datasets identified a signature anti-correlated to TMPRSS2. As proof-of-principle we also validated the anti-correlation between microRNAs and TMPRSS2 expression in a SARS-CoV-2 positive HNSCC patient tissues Finally, we did not find TMPRSS2 promoter methylation. CONCLUSIONS: Collectively, these findings suggest that tumoral tissues, herein exemplified by HNSCC and lung cancers might be more resistant to SARS-CoV-2 infection due to reduced expression of TMPRSS2. These observations may help to better assess the frailty of SARS-CoV-2 positive cancer patients.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental and Clinical Cancer Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • SARS-CoV-2
  • microRNAs TP53
  • MYC


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