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March 1, 2024

New research brings hope for understanding and treating long COVID

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Jan 19, 2024

Long COVID, where COVID-19 symptoms persist for months or years after the initial infection, has remained a complex and poorly understood condition. But several new studies published in the past week are bringing renewed hope that researchers are making progress in unraveling the mechanisms behind long COVID. These discoveries could pave the way for better detection methods and more effective treatments.

Immune system abnormalities likely a key factor

A study published on January 14th in the journal Nature Immunology points to immune system dysregulation as a central feature of long COVID.

The researchers examined blood samples from over 200 patients with long COVID as well as healthy controls. They found that long COVID patients had persistently high levels of cytokines – small proteins that coordinate the immune response. This suggests ongoing immune activation even after the initial infection has passed.

Additionally, the researchers saw changes indicating immune cell exhaustion. Key immune cells showed signs that they were not functioning as effectively, which could prevent adequate control and resolution of inflammation.

“Overall, our data provide evidence for peripheral and tissue-resident immune disturbances in [long] COVID-19,” the authors wrote.

This study adds to previous evidence of immune dysregulation in long COVID and offers some of the most thorough characterization of specific abnormalities to date. Understanding these immune irregularities is an important step toward developing treatments to correct them.

“If further research bears out the findings,” said immunologist Dr. Rachel Smith, who was not involved with the study, “it offers real hope for therapeutic strategies aimed at balancing and supporting immune function in long COVID patients.”

Complement system activation emerges as another factor

The immune system disturbance seen in long COVID seems to extend beyond the abnormalities identified above. Another preprint study released last week revealed involvement of the complement system.

The complement system is part of the innate immune response and marks pathogens for destruction. It also helps clear debris from damaged cells.

While typically beneficial, inappropriate or uncontrolled complement activation can cause significant tissue damage and inflammation. Researchers have speculated that this may contribute to persistent symptoms in some patients with long COVID.

The new study provides some initial evidence to support this idea. Analyzing blood from over 150 long COVID patients and healthy controls, they found a pattern of complement activation in a subset of patients.

“We demonstrate a distinct [long] COVID-19 subtype characterized by complement component 3 nephritic factor autoantibody production, complement alternative pathway activation, and a type I interferon signature,” the authors wrote.

In other words, some long COVID patients show signs of chronic complement-mediated inflammation. This finding could be key for developing specialized treatments for this subgroup of patients.

Certain pre-existing conditions associated with higher long COVID risk

Alongside research on the biological mechanisms behind long COVID symptoms, some studies are probing why only some COVID-19 patients go on to develop lasting effects while others recover quickly. Pre-existing conditions and health status before COVID-19 are likely contributors, but there has been little concrete evidence.

A large study published January 17th helps fill this gap. Analyzing medical records from over half a million US COVID-19 patients, researchers found certain chronic conditions that were linked to higher odds of having persistent post-COVID symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.

Condition Odds Ratio for Developing Long COVID
Chronic Kidney Disease 1.75x higher
COPD/Emphysema 1.4x higher
Asthma 1.2x higher
Congestive Heart Failure 2.5x higher
Obesity 1.2x higher
Anxiety Disorders 1.8x higher
Mood Disorders 1.4x higher

While more investigation is needed on the interplay between pre-existing disease, initial infection severity, and long COVID risk, these findings provide some initial demographic guidance on who may be most vulnerable.

Doctors should be especially attentive to long COVID symptoms in patients with chronic conditions like kidney disease, heart failure, and mental health disorders given their heightened risk, experts say. Enabling early supportive care could be key to better outcomes.

Calls for increased medical recognition and treatment options

Despite the influx of long COVID research, advocates say major gaps remain around medical recognition of the syndrome along with getting patients proper support and care.

There is still no standard case definition or diagnostic code for long COVID. Many patients have reported feeling dismissed by doctors when reporting debilitating fatigue, breathing issues, neurological problems and other symptoms lasting months after COVID-19.

“The medical community is very skeptical about it all,” Regina Suskovich, a long COVID patient, told NBC News.

This can prevent patients from securing vital medical leave accommodations from work or qualifying for social and disability services.

Long COVID advocacy groups like Survivor Corps have also called for far more research funding dedicated specifically to understanding long COVID and developing treatments.

While recent estimates suggest over 15%00017-5/fulltext) of COVID-19 survivors develop lasting effects, long COVID has often been overlooked amid the acute pressures of the pandemic – a disconnect advocates have called the “long COVID crisis within the COVID crisis”.

“The bottom line is that our health system in the post-COVID era will need to radically transform to help manage long COVID,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Monica Gandhi. “Both acknowledging long COVID through validated diagnosis codes as well as expanding multidisciplinary care clinics for post-COVID care has to be part of the solution.”

Hope, but a long road ahead

While the recent spate of long COVID studies provide cause for hope, researchers caution that there is still an enormous amount to be learned in order to translate these advances into patient treatments.

“This is really just the beginning – the tip of the iceberg regarding therapeutic development,” said immunologist Dr. José Ordovás-Montañés about the immune dysfunction findings. “We have some exciting potential avenues, but we still need to do preclinical validation in cellular and animal models before even contemplating any clinical trials.”

Developing and testing drugs targeted at specific long COVID mechanisms will be arduous. And specialized treatment guided by distinct immunological or biological features – what experts call “precision medicine” – requires far larger studies across diverse patient subgroups.

“What we’re seeing now are those very first steps on what will be a long road,” Dr. Ordovás said.

Nonetheless, the recent insights represent hard-fought progress that bring renewed motivation to both scientists and long COVID patients alike.

“As someone still struggling with long COVID years later, this research couldn’t come soon enough,” said Hannah Davis, founding member of the long COVID support group Body Politic. “It’s a glimmer that help could be on the way.”

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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