Press Release

Project to investigate blood vessel damage in Covid-19 patients

Published on 12 May 2021

A research project at the University of Dundee investigating how Covid-19 damages blood vessels has received funding of £133,000 from national charity Heart Research UK.

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Portrait photo of Faisel Khan

A research project at the University of Dundee investigating how Covid-19 damages blood vessels has received funding of £133,000 from national charity Heart Research UK.

Harmful effects of Covid-19 are excessively high in people who have pre-existing diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Covid-19 can also cause ‘new’ damage to the heart and blood vessels in people who have no pre-existing disease.

The lining of blood vessels, called endothelium, acts as a barrier and first point of contact for the virus. From recent research studies, there is evidence that the virus causes damage to the endothelium which, in turn, leads to disease of the heart and blood vessels, particularly the very small blood vessels, called microvessels.

It is thought that inflammation in the body caused by Covid-19 might be responsible for some of these harmful effects. Inflammation is a protective mechanism activated by the body’s immune system to fight infection, remove harmful toxins and help in the healing process. However, inflammation can also have detrimental effects on the human body, especially when it does not resolve and becomes persistent, as in Covid-19.

The project will be led by Faisel Khan, Professor of Cardiovascular Sciences at Dundee’s School of Medicine. Professor Khan and his team believe that abnormal activation of a type of white blood cell, called the neutrophil, important in the body’s immune response, might be linked with Covid-19 and cause damage to the blood vessels.

Professor Khan said, “As Covid-19 is still a relatively new disease, we are still trying to understand how it affects the body. We know that people with pre-existing cardiovascular conditions are more likely to suffer from serious complications, and that Covid-19 itself can damage the heart and blood vessels.

“With this project, we hope to be able to better understand why and how Covid-19 damages the cardiovascular system, and hope to find new ways to prevent or reduce that damage, improving outcomes and quality of life for patients.

“We are very grateful to Heart Research UK for supporting this exciting research.”

Recent research has shown that drug treatment to reduce the abnormal activation of neutrophils can improve the symptoms of patients who have bronchiectasis, a lung disease caused by inflammation.

The project will explore whether abnormally high activation of neutrophils is responsible for long term damage to the endothelium and small blood vessels in Covid-19 patients. It will also examine whether reducing activation of neutrophils with drug treatment reduces damage to the endothelium and improves the function of the blood vessels.

The team will assess the function of the small blood vessels over 12 months in patients who have had Covid-19 to see if this is abnormal compared with healthy people who have not had the disease. They will apply small amounts of chemicals to the skin and use a laser machine, which measures blood flow in the microvessels, to assess how well the blood vessels are working. They will also take blood samples to measure the activation of neutrophils and see if high levels of activation are linked to blood vessel damage.

They will also use these methods in patients who have been hospitalised with Covid-19 to compare the effects of drug treatment versus placebo on the activation of neutrophils and function of the blood vessels.

The study will show whether increased activation of neutrophils contributes to development of long-term disease of the blood vessels in Covid-19 patients and whether reducing their activation has beneficial effects. Targeting neutrophils in this way could be an important treatment option for reducing blood vessel and heart complications in people who have Covid-19.

Kate Bratt-Farrar, Chief Executive of Heart Research UK, said, “We are delighted to be supporting the work of Professor Khan and his team, whose research is vital in understanding how we are being affected by one of biggest health challenges we have ever faced.

“For some time, it has been known that Covid-19 can have long-lasting effects on the heart. Through this research, we hope to be able to better understand how this damage occurs, and how we can hopefully improve outcomes for patients.

“Heart Research UK grants are all about helping patients. They aim to bring the latest developments to those who need them, as soon as possible.

“The dedication we see from UK researchers is both encouraging and inspiring, and we at Heart Research UK are proud to be part of it.”

Enquiries

Grant Hill

Press Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768

G.Hill@dundee.ac.uk