COVID-19 Research

Blood test could prevent COVID-19 patients from getting sicker

Postdoctoral fellow Meng Wang preparing to analyze COVID-19 blood samples. (photo: M. DeMarco)

From being asymptomatic to developing life-threatening symptoms, it’s become clear that people infected with COVID-19 respond to the virus with vastly different degrees of severity.

With that in mind, researchers from St. Paul’s Hospital are developing a blood test to identify people at risk of getting seriously ill after a COVID-19 diagnosis so they can receive care to prevent them from getting sicker. The diagnostic’s findings could also support public health in marshalling appropriate resources to where they’re needed most.    

Test could monitor high-risk people who test positive

Leading the research is Dr. Mari DeMarco, a clinical chemist at St. Paul’s and principal investigator for the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation (HLI). She says the new test aims to go beyond traditional serology testing – which detects antibodies the body produces to fight an infection – and gather more information about a person’s specific immune response to the virus. Such a test could be used to monitor high-risk people who have been infected, such as seniors in long-term care. “The hope is to identify people that are likely to have a more severe response to a SARS-CoV-2 infection and use this information to guide care and ease the severity of a person’s disease course,” she says.

Test is one of three COVID-19 research projects around COVID-19

DeMarco’s project is one of three affiliated with Providence Health Care that has recently received funding from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research’s new COVID-19 Research Response Fund.

Dr. Christopher Carlsten, also a principal investigator with HLI, is conducting research with Vancouver Coastal Health around survivors suffering ongoing lung problems. A description of this project notes: “Given that this is a new disease, it is crucial to develop a registry (a ‘home’ where all medical information is collected and analyzed), alongside a post-COVID clinic, in order to learn with and from patients.”

Dr. Shira Goldenberg, of the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity housed at Providence, is investigating how migrants may be overly affected by COVID-19. This group is overrepresented in essential-worker categories, says Dr. Goldenberg, yet they face barriers to health care. Using data and interviews, the research team will work to understand this community’s experiences with COVID-19-related care and health services coverage “to ensure no one is left behind in the COVID-19 response and beyond.”

DeMarco’s test aims to help prevent people from getting severely sick from COVID-19. It will let doctors know, before things get worse, that their patient may need more care to help fight the virus.

The data from the blood test could also be used on a broader scale to guide public health actions. “For an individual with COVID-19, we want to be able to predict if their immune system is going to do a good job of fighting off the virus. For a community, like a long-term care facility, we want to know the number of people at high-risk for a severe disease course so that we may better predict the services and support that community will need in the near future.”

Test builds on St. Paul’s expertise with diagnostics

The test in development builds upon the expertise within St. Paul’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, which has been at the forefront of diagnostic testing for COVID-19.  Virologist Dr. Marc Romney, microbiologist and Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC), physician Dr. Christopher Lowe and Dr. Victor Leung, Medical Director for IPAC, were instrumental in using their existing HIV and hepatitis C work to rapidly develop a diagnostic test for the coronavirus.

“The Michael Smith Foundation’s COVID-19 Research Response Fund is serving an important function in BC’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says DeMarco.

“It supports the research we need to make scientifically driven decisions to help mitigate future waves of infection.”

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