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Boldly Going Where No Science Has Gone Before

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It was an amazing experience to touch base once again with Kate Rubins, a NASA astronaut aboard the International Space Station. Connecting via live downlink on March 26, 2021, we discussed how space-based research can enable valuable biomedical advances on our planet. For example, over the past five years, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences has funded a series of tissue chip payloads that have launched to the orbiting laboratory. Rubins, who is a biologist and infectious disease expert, has facilitated three of these projects: Cardinal Heart from Stanford University, Electrical Stimulation of Human Myocytes in Microgravity from the University of Florida, and Cartilage-Bone-Synovium from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Can Blood Thinners Keep Moderately Ill COVID-19 Patients Out of the ICU?

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Blood Clot
Credit: iStock

One of many troubling complications of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is its ability to trigger the formation of multiple blood clots, most often in older people but sometimes in younger ones, too. It raises the question of whether and when more aggressive blood thinning treatments might improve outcomes for people hospitalized for COVID-19.

The answer to this question is desperately needed to help guide clinical practice. So, I’m happy to report interim results of three large clinical trials spanning four continents and more than 300 hospitals that are beginning to provide critical evidence on this very question [1]. While it will take time to reach a solid consensus, the findings based on more than 1,000 moderately ill patients suggest that full doses of blood thinners are safe and can help to keep folks hospitalized with COVID-19 from becoming more severely ill and requiring some form of organ support.

The results that are in so far suggest that individuals hospitalized, but not severely ill, with COVID-19 who received a full intravenous dose of the common blood thinner heparin were less likely to need vital organ support, including mechanical ventilation, compared to those who received the lower “prophylactic” subcutaneous dose. It’s important to note that these findings are in contrast to results announced last month indicating that routine use of a full dose of blood thinner for patients already critically ill and in the ICU wasn’t beneficial and may even have been harmful in some cases [2]. This is a compelling example of how critical it is to stratify patients with different severity in clinical trials—what might help one subgroup might be of no benefit, or even harmful, in another.

More study is clearly needed to sort out all the details about when more aggressive blood thinning treatment is warranted. Trial investigators are now working to make the full results available to help inform a doctor’s decisions about how to best to treat their patients hospitalized with COVID-19. It’s worth noting that these trials are overseen by independent review boards, which routinely evaluate the data and are composed of experts in ethics, biostatistics, clinical trials, and blood clotting disorders.

These clinical trials were made possible in part by the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) public-private partnership and its ACTIV-4 Antithrombotics trials—along with similar initiatives in Canada, Australia, and the European Union. The ACTIV-4 trials are overseen by the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood institute and funded by Operation Warp Speed.

This ACTIV-4 trial is one of three Phase 3 clinical trials evaluating the safety and effectiveness of blood thinners for patients with COVID-19 [3]. Another ongoing trial is investigating whether blood thinners are beneficial for newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients who do not require hospitalization. There are also plans to explore the use of blood thinners for patients after they’ve been discharged from the hospital following a diagnosis of moderate to severe COVID-19 and to establish more precise methods for identifying which patients with COVID-19 are most at risk for developing life-threatening blood clots.

Meanwhile, research teams are exploring other potentially promising ways to repurpose existing therapeutics and improve COVID-19 outcomes. In fact, the very day that these latest findings on blood thinners were announced, another group at The Montreal Heart Institute, Canada, announced preliminary results of the international COLCORONA trial, testing the use of colchicine—an anti-inflammatory drug widely used to treat gout and other conditions—for patients diagnosed with COVID-19 [4].

Their early findings in treating patients just after a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 suggest that colchicine might reduce the risk of death or hospitalization compared to patients given a placebo. In the more than 4,100 individuals with a proven diagnosis of COVID-19, colchicine significantly reduced hospitalizations by 25 percent, the need for mechanical ventilation by 50 percent, and deaths by 44 percent. Still, the actual numbers of individuals represented by these percentages was small.

Time will tell whether and for which patients colchicine and blood thinners prove most useful in treating COVID-19. For those answers, we’ll have to await the analysis of more data. But the early findings on both treatment strategies come as a welcome reminder that we continue to make progress each day on such critical questions about which existing treatments can be put to work to improve outcomes for people with COVID-19. Together with our efforts to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, finding better ways to treat those who do get sick and prevent some of the worst outcomes will help us finally put this terrible pandemic behind us.

References:

[1] Full-dose blood thinners decreased need for life support and improved outcome in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. January 22, 2021.

[2] NIH ACTIV trial of blood thinners pauses enrollment of critically ill COVID-19 patients. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. December 22, 2020.

[3] NIH ACTIV initiative launches adaptive clinical trials of blood-clotting treatments for COVID-19. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. September 10, 2020.

[4] Colchicine reduces the risk of COVID-19-related complications. The Montreal Heart Institute. January 22, 2021.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


COVID-19 Can Damage Hearts of Some College Athletes

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American football Player
Credit: iStock/Serega

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the news lately about whether to pause or resume college athletics during the pandemic. One of the sticking points has been uncertainty about how to monitor the health of student athletes who test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As a result, college medical staff don’t always know when to tell athletes that they’ve fully recovered and it’s safe to start training again.

The lack of evidence owes to two factors. Though it may not seem like it, this terrible coronavirus has been around for less than a year, and that’s provided little time to conduct the needed studies with young student athletes. But that’s starting to change. An interesting new study in the journal JAMA Cardiology provides valuable and rather worrisome early data from COVID-positive student athletes evaluated for an inflammation of the heart called myocarditis, a well-known complication [1].

Saurabh Rajpal and his colleagues at the Ohio State University, Columbus, used cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize the hearts of 26 male and female student athletes. They participated in a range of sports, including football, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and track. All of the athletes were referred to the university’s sports medicine clinic this past summer after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. All had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

Even so, the MRI scans, taken 11-53 days after completion of quarantine, showed four of the student athletes (all males) had swelling and tissue damage to their hearts consistent with myocarditis. Although myocarditis often resolves on its own over time, severe cases can compromise the heart muscle’s ability to beat. That can lead to heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, and even sudden death in competitive athletes with normal heart function [2].

The investigators also looked for more subtle findings of cardiac injury in these athletes, using a contrast agent called gadolinium and measuring its time to appear in the cardiac muscle during the study. Eight of the 26 athletes (31 percent) had late gadolinium enhancement, suggestive of prior myocardial injury.

Even though it’s a small study, these results certainly raise concerns. They add more evidence to a prior study, published by a German group, that suggested subtle cardiac consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection may be common in adults [3].

Rajpal and his colleagues will continue to follow the athletes in their study for several more months. The researchers will keep an eye out for other lingering symptoms of COVID-19, generate more cardiac MRI data, and perform exercise testing.

As this study shows, we still have a lot to learn about the long-term consequences of COVID-19, which can take people on different paths to recovery. For athletes, that path is the challenge to return to top physical shape and feel ready to compete at a high level. But getting back in uniform must also be done safely to minimize any risks to an athlete’s long-term health and wellbeing. The more science-based evidence that’s available, the more prepared athletes at large and small colleges will be to compete safely in this challenging time.

References:

[1] Cardiovascular magnetic resonance findings in competitive athletes recovering from COVID-19 infection. Rajpal S, Tong MS, Borchers J, et al. JAMA Cardiol. 2020 September 11. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Eligibility and disqualification recommendations for competitive athletes with cardiovascular abnormalities: Task Force 3: Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy and other cardiomyopathies, and myocarditis. Maron BJ, Udelson JE, Bonow RO, et al. Circulation. 2015;132(22):e273-e280.

[3] Outcomes of cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging in patients recently recovered from Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Puntmann VO, Carej ML, Wieters I. JAMA Cardiol. 2020 Jul 27:e203557. [Published online ahead of print.]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Heart Inflammation (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Saurabh Rajpal (Ohio State College of Medicine, Columbus)


Study Ties COVID-19-Related Syndrome in Kids to Altered Immune System

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Very sick child
Credit: iStock/Sasiistock

Most children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop only a mild illness. But, days or weeks later, a small percentage of kids go on to develop a puzzling syndrome known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). This severe inflammation of organs and tissues can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, and eyes.

Thankfully, most kids with MIS-C respond to treatment and make rapid recoveries. But, tragically, MIS-C can sometimes be fatal.

With COVID-19 cases in children having increased by 21 percent in the United States since early August [2], NIH and others are continuing to work hard on getting a handle on this poorly understood complication. Many think that MIS-C isn’t a direct result of the virus, but seems more likely to be due to an intense autoimmune response. Indeed, a recent study in Nature Medicine [1] offers some of the first evidence that MIS-C is connected to specific changes in the immune system that, for reasons that remain mysterious, sometimes follow COVID-19.

These findings come from Shane Tibby, a researcher at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London. United Kingdom; Manu Shankar-Hari, a scientist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London; and colleagues. The researchers enlisted 25 children, ages 7 to 14, who developed MIS-C in connection with COVID-19. In search of clues, they examined blood samples collected from the children during different stages of their care, starting when they were most ill through recovery and follow-up. They then compared the samples to those of healthy children of the same ages.

What they found was a complex array of immune disruptions. The children had increased levels of various inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, alongside raised levels of other markers suggesting tissue damage—such as troponin, which indicates heart muscle injury.

The neutrophils, monocytes, and other white blood cells that rapidly respond to infections were activated as expected. But the levels of certain white blood cells called T lymphocytes were paradoxically reduced. Interestingly, despite the low overall numbers of T lymphocytes, particular subsets of them appeared activated as though fighting an infection. While the children recovered, those differences gradually disappeared as the immune system returned to normal.

It has been noted that MIS-C bears some resemblance to an inflammatory condition known as Kawasaki disease, which also primarily affects children. While there are similarities, this new work shows that MIS-C is a distinct illness associated with COVID-19. In fact, only two children in the study met the full criteria for Kawasaki disease based on the clinical features and symptoms of their illness.

Another recent study from the United Kingdom, reported several new symptoms of MIS-C [3]. They include headaches, tiredness, muscle aches, and sore throat. Researchers also determined that the number of platelets was much lower in the blood of children with MIS-C than in those without the condition. They proposed that evaluating a child’s symptoms along with his or her platelet level could help to diagnose MIS-C.

It will now be important to learn much more about the precise mechanisms underlying these observed changes in the immune system and how best to treat or prevent them. In support of this effort, NIH recently announced $20 million in research funding dedicated to the development of approaches that identify children at high risk for developing MIS-C [4].

The hope is that this new NIH effort, along with other continued efforts around the world, will elucidate the factors influencing the likelihood that a child with COVID-19 will develop MIS-C. Such insights are essential to allow doctors to intervene as early as possible and improve outcomes for this potentially serious condition.

References:

[1] Peripheral immunophenotypes in children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Carter MJ, Fish M, Jennings A, Doores KJ, Wellman P, Seow J, Acors S, Graham C, Timms E, Kenny J, Neil S, Malim MH, Tibby SM, Shankar-Hari M. Nat Med. 2020 Aug 18.

[2] Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. August 24, 2020.

[3] Clinical characteristics of children and young people admitted to hospital with covid-19 in United Kingdom: prospective multicentre observational cohort study. Swann OV, Holden KA, Turtle L, Harrison EW, Docherty AB, Semple MG, et al. Br Med J. 2020 Aug 17.

[4] NIH-funded project seeks to identify children at risk for MIS-C. NIH. August 7, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Kawasaki Disease (Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Shane Tibby (Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London)

Manu Shankar-Hari (King’s College, London)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Office of the Director; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities; Fogarty International Center


See the Human Cardiovascular System in a Whole New Way

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Watch this brief video and you might guess you’re seeing an animated line drawing, gradually revealing a delicate take on a familiar system: the internal structures of the human body. But this movie doesn’t capture the work of a talented sketch artist. It was created using the first 3D, full-body imaging device using positron emission tomography (PET).

The device is called an EXPLORER (EXtreme Performance LOng axial REsearch scanneR) total-body PET scanner. By pairing this scanner with an advanced method for reconstructing images from vast quantities of data, the researchers can make movies.

For this movie in particular, the researchers injected small amounts of a short-lived radioactive tracer—an essential component of all PET scans—into the lower leg of a study volunteer. They then sat back as the scanner captured images of the tracer moving up the leg and into the body, where it enters the heart. The tracer moves through the heart’s right ventricle to the lungs, back through the left ventricle, and up to the brain. Keep watching, and, near the 30-second mark, you will see in closer focus a haunting capture of the beating heart.

This groundbreaking scanner was developed and tested by Jinyi Qi, Simon Cherry, Ramsey Badawi, and their colleagues at the University of California, Davis [1]. As the NIH-funded researchers reported recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their new scanner can capture dynamic changes in the body that take place in a tenth of a second [2]. That’s faster than the blink of an eye!

This movie is composed of frames captured at 0.1-second intervals. It highlights a feature that makes this scanner so unique: its ability to visualize the whole body at once. Other medical imaging methods, including MRI, CT, and traditional PET scans, can be used to capture beautiful images of the heart or the brain, for example. But they can’t show what’s happening in the heart and brain at the same time.

The ability to capture the dynamics of radioactive tracers in multiple organs at once opens a new window into human biology. For example, the EXPLORER system makes it possible to measure inflammation that occurs in many parts of the body after a heart attack, as well as to study interactions between the brain and gut in Parkinson’s disease and other disorders.

EXPLORER also offers other advantages. It’s extra sensitive, which enables it to capture images other scanners would miss—and with a lower dose of radiation. It’s also much faster than a regular PET scanner, making it especially useful for imaging wiggly kids. And it expands the realm of research possibilities for PET imaging studies. For instance, researchers might repeatedly image a person with arthritis over time to observe changes that may be related to treatments or exercise.

Currently, the UC Davis team is working with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco to use EXPLORER to enhance our understanding of HIV infection. Their preliminary findings show that the scanner makes it easier to capture where the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS, is lurking in the body by picking up on signals too weak to be seen on traditional PET scans.

While the research potential for this scanner is clearly vast, it also holds promise for clinical use. In fact, a commercial version of the scanner, called uEXPLORER, has been approved by the FDA and is in use at UC Davis [3]. The researchers have found that its improved sensitivity makes it much easier to detect cancers in patients who are obese and, therefore, harder to image well using traditional PET scanners.

As soon as the COVID-19 outbreak subsides enough to allow clinical research to resume, the researchers say they’ll begin recruiting patients with cancer into a clinical study designed to compare traditional PET and EXPLORER scans directly.

As these researchers, and other researchers around the world, begin to put this new scanner to use, we can look forward to seeing many more remarkable movies like this one. Imagine what they will reveal!

References:

[1] First human imaging studies with the EXPLORER total-body PET scanner. Badawi RD, Shi H, Hu P, Chen S, Xu T, Price PM, Ding Y, Spencer BA, Nardo L, Liu W, Bao J, Jones T, Li H, Cherry SR. J Nucl Med. 2019 Mar;60(3):299-303.

[2] Subsecond total-body imaging using ultrasensitive positron emission tomography. Zhang X, Cherry SR, Xie Z, Shi H, Badawi RD, Qi J. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Feb 4;117(5):2265-2267.

[3] “United Imaging Healthcare uEXPLORER Total-body Scanner Cleared by FDA, Available in U.S. Early 2019.” Cision PR Newswire. January 22, 2019.

Links:

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) (NIH Clinical Center)

EXPLORER Total-Body PET Scanner (University of California, Davis)

Cherry Lab (UC Davis)

Badawi Lab (UC Davis Medical Center, Sacramento)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; Common Fund


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