Thirty-two-year-old Zee Rahiman is alive today thanks to exceptional health care and made-in-BC research that is benefitting patients with COVID-19. The otherwise healthy Vancouver resident hit the wall in late March. "I was coughing and vomiting and had a fever. When doctors at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) put me on a ventilator to breathe, I thought: I might not make it." Zee is one of 65 people currently enrolled in a clinical study examining the immune-system response of patients with COVID-19.
A small team led Dr. Mypinder Sekhon, an intensive care physician at VGH and Dr. Cheryl Wellington, a Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC), are retrieving and processing blood samples from critically ill COVID-19 patients at Vancouver General and Surrey Memorial Hospital.
"In some patients it appears that it may not be the virus itself, but the triggering of an excessive immune response that leads to lung damage," says Dr. Sekhon. "If we can identify and quell it, patients may improve quickly." Dr. Sekhon says in Zee Rahiman's case it was like flipping a switch; personalizing his care in the intensive care unit was associated with a dramatic decrease in the elevated immune system markers in his blood.
Using a machine known as a Simoa HD-1 analyzer in Dr. Wellington's lab at UBC, blood samples that normally take weeks to analyze are processed within 24 hours so ICU physicians have more time to observe a patient's immune system. For example, elevated inflammatory and immune biomarkers may indicate the immune system could overreact and attack the lungs. Dr. Wellington's lab is the go-to-lab in Canada for blood biomarker information using this type of technology.
"There is a bouquet of opportunities here with this very collaborative bench-to-bedside research," says Dr. Wellington. "We want to take what we learn and help other patients."
The research team is also planning to study the patients long-term, so they can better understand the immune-system response from having COVID-19, including lung and brain assessments. "We want to keep this success story going and expand and grow this study to benefit people across Canada and internationally," says Dr. Wellington. "In my whole career as a faculty member, I've never seen clinical research move this quickly."
Zee Rahiman is grateful for the speed at which the research team was able to pivot their work and focus on COVID-19. "Just because you're young and healthy doesn't mean you can't get COVID-19. To the research and clinical teams: Thank you for giving me a second chance."
The research in funded in part, by donations to VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation.
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