London researchers discover novel method to diagnose long COVID

Image of Dr. Michael Nicholson and  Dr. Douglas Fraser

October 14, 2022

Published this week in Molecular Medicine, researchers at Lawson Health Research Institute have found that patients with post-COVID-19 condition (long COVID) have unique biomarkers in their blood. The team is now working on developing a first of its kind blood test that could be used to diagnose long COVID. The discovery could also lead to new therapeutics for this condition.

Long COVID occurs when someone experiences symptoms like fatigue, cognitive issues, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal issues after an initial COVID-19 diagnosis. It can sometimes take up to 12 months for the condition to occur. 

“It’s estimated that 30 to 40 per cent of patients with COVID-19 will develop long COVID,” says Dr. Douglas Fraser, Lawson Scientist and Critical Care Physician at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). “Physicians currently rely on symptoms alone to diagnose the condition, but our research offers a unique profile of blood biomarkers that could be used in a clinical test.”

The researchers studied 140 blood samples from participants at LHSC and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, including St. Joseph’s Post-Acute COVID-19 Program. Participants were those with presumed long COVID, hospital inpatients with acute COVID-19 infection and healthy control subjects.

“We chose to study blood vessels that link all the body systems together to look for changes after an acute infection,” explains Dr. Fraser, who is also a Professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. 

The team found that blood vessels of those with presumed long COVID were changing rapidly after a confirmed COVID-19 infection. They also found that patients with long COVID had 14 elevated blood biomarkers associate with blood vessels. With the help of machine learning, they discovered that two biomarkers called ANG-1 and P-SEL could be used to classify long COVID with 96 per cent accuracy.  

“Long COVID is a relatively new condition and we have much to learn about it,” says Dr. Michael Nicholson, Associate Scientist at Lawson, Respirologist at St. Joseph’s and Associate Professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “This research advances our understanding of long COVID with the potential to improve diagnosis and patient care.” 

The advantage of biomarkers is that they not only help diagnose a disease but also provide insight into potential treatments. The team is now focused on using their findings to create a clinical diagnostic test with a goal of also exploring therapeutics. 

“With a point-of-care diagnostic test, we could confidently diagnose long COVID and eventually develop targeted therapeutics against these blood vessel changes that we have discovered,” says Dr. Fraser. “The ultimate goal is to improve patient outcomes following a long COVID diagnosis.”

This research was supported by funding from London Health Sciences Foundation, London Community Foundation and the AMOSO Innovation Fund. It builds on a growing body of COVID-19 research from scientists at Lawson Health Research Institute.  

The study’s first author Maitray Patel, is a PhD student from Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Patel worked on blood analysis under the supervision of Drs. Doug Fraser and Mark Daley.

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