A project at Newcastle University investigating long-term inflammation of the heart following COVID-19 infection has been awarded a grant of almost £150,000 by national charity Heart Research UK.
Around 10% of COVID-19 patients in the UK will suffer from so-called ‘long-COVID’, where symptoms continue for more than three months. In addition to causing chest infection and breathing problems, COVID-19 can also affect the heart, which is associated with poorer survival chances.
While older patients, men and those with cardiovascular disease are at highest risk, all of these subgroups also have a weaker ‘adaptive’ immune response in common. Heart injury caused by COVID-19, and particularly the role of the immune system, is poorly understood.
Possibly up to half of patients who are admitted to hospital with COVID-19 have ongoing inflammation of their heart muscle and vessels, independent of pre-existing conditions, severity and overall course of the acute illness, or time from the original diagnosis.
The aim of this project, which will be led by Professor Ioakim Spyridopoulos, Professor of Cardiovascular Gerontology at Newcastle University, is to study the role of the immune system in long-term heart inflammation.
Professor Spyridopoulos and the team plan to:
- Identify specific blood markers that can tell us if there is still inflammation in the heart
- Understand the mechanism of this ongoing inflammation
- Discover which of the molecules in the immune response could be targeted by existing drugs to prevent future complications in patients recovering from COVID-19 and heart inflammation.
They will study blood samples from patients in the ongoing COVID-HEART trial, which involves a large UK consortium of leading researchers and clinicians led by Professor John Greenwood from the University of Leeds. The project will use a novel technology, called ‘spectral cytometry’ that can visualise hundreds of small cellular subgroups of the immune system.
This research has the potential to identify new blood markers of heart inflammation as well as guide specific immune-therapies to prevent ongoing heart inflammation and therefore reduce the risk of cardiovascular complications in patients recovering from COVID-19.
Professor Spyridopoulos said: “A significant number of patients seem to suffer for many months after COVID-19 infection, specifically with heart-related symptoms such as palpitations, breathlessness, chest pain or simply overall tiredness.
“We would like to understand the reason why these patients do not recover as well from Covid-19, and whether their immune system reacts differently. Ultimately, we would like to identify these patients quickly, and hopefully be able to offer some kind of treatment.”
Kate Bratt-Farrar, Chief Executive of Heart Research UK, said: “We are delighted to be supporting the work of Professor Spyridopoulos and his team, whose research is right at the cutting edge of the biggest medical challenges the world has ever faced.
“For some time, it has been known that COVID-19 can have long-lasting effects on the heart. Through this research, we hope to be able to improve outcomes for COVID-19 patients, reduce the risk of damage to their hearts and help speed up their recovery.
“Heart Research UK grants are all about helping patients. They aim to bring the latest developments to those who need them, as soon as possible.
“The dedication we see from UK researchers is both encouraging and inspiring, and we at Heart Research UK are proud to be part of it.”