Research ArticleCORONAVIRUS

Kallikrein 13 serves as a priming protease during infection by the human coronavirus HKU1

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Science Signaling  24 Nov 2020:
Vol. 13, Issue 659, eaba9902
DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.aba9902

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Priming viral entry

Unlike SARS-CoV-2, the human coronavirus HKU1 normally causes relatively mild respiratory tract infections; however, it shares with SARS-CoV-2 the mechanism of using its surface spike (S) protein to enter target cells. Because the host receptor for HCoV-HKU1 is unknown, efforts to study the virus in cell culture systems have proved difficult. Milewska et al. found that knockout of the protease kallikrein 13 (KLK13) in human airway epithelial cells blocked their infection by HCoV-HKU1, that overexpression of KLK13 in nonpermissive cells enabled their infection by the virus, and that KLK13 cleaved the viral S protein. Together, these findings suggest that KLK13 is a priming enzyme for viral entry and may help to establish cell lines that can facilitate further investigation of the mechanism of viral pathogenesis.


Human coronavirus HKU1 (HCoV-HKU1) is associated with respiratory disease and is prevalent worldwide, but an in vitro model for viral replication is lacking. An interaction between the coronaviral spike (S) protein and its receptor is the primary determinant of tissue and host specificity; however, viral entry is a complex process requiring the concerted action of multiple cellular elements. Here, we found that the protease kallikrein 13 (KLK13) was required for the infection of human respiratory epithelial cells and was sufficient to mediate the entry of HCoV-HKU1 into nonpermissive RD cells. We also demonstrated the cleavage of the HCoV-HKU1 S protein by KLK13 in the S1/S2 region, suggesting that KLK13 is the priming enzyme for this virus. Together, these data suggest that protease distribution and specificity determine the tissue and cell specificity of the virus and may also regulate interspecies transmission.

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