COVID-19 infection can cause pneumonia, lung inflammation and respiratory failure with damage to lung airways, tissues and blood vessels. Researchers are now also beginning to understand the long-term effects of the disease on the lungs and believe it may cause irreversible lung damage and debilitating symptoms.
New funding from the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund is enabling a team of researchers across Ontario led by Western professor Grace Parraga, to use novel lung-imaging techniques pioneered at Western to better understand these long-term effects of COVID-19. The aim of the project is to help plan health care and societal resources for survivors of COVID-19. The team received a total of $876,000 over two years to complete the study.
Using hyperpolarized 129Xe magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in combination with computed tomography (CT), the team makes the invisible, visible. Their approach illuminates where the lung receives fresh air, where this is blocked and where aerated blood flows and where it is stopped.
“Our study is the world’s first pulmonary MRI and CT evaluation of post-infection lung structure and function in survivors of mild and severe COVID-19 infection,” said Parraga, professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Lung Imaging. “We will measure potential differences in mild and severe disease, between men and women and in patients with pre-existing lung disease which taken together will provide new information for treatment of lingering symptoms and healthcare planning for future infections.”
The team, which includes co-investigators and collaborators from the Hospital for Sick Children, Lakehead University, McMaster University and Ryerson University, expect to provide an understanding about the lung abnormalities that persist in COVID-19 patients post-infection and how they influence quality of life, recovery time, health care planning and treatment. The researchers hope to also provide insight into whether or not patients with chronic lung diseases like asthma and COPD need different strategies to improve outcomes.
“By directly measuring the airways, airsacs and vessel tree in the lungs of Ontarians who have recovered from COVID-19 infection, we will pinpoint the source of lingering symptoms and long-term lung damage so we can optimize treatment for COVID-19 survivors of milder and severe disease,” said Parraga.