U of A study examines how SARS-CoV-2 affects the body’s vital organs

Research involving Alberta patients will help clinicians better understand long-term effects of COVID-19.


Ian Paterson is leading a new study involving COVID-19 patients in Alberta. The research team is using new MRI techniques it developed to learn more about how the disease affects vital organs including the heart, lungs and brain. (Photo: Jordan Carson)

University of Alberta researchers are recruiting COVID-19 patients for a study to learn how the SARS-CoV-2 virus affects some of the body’s most vital organs.

The team, led by Ian Paterson, a cardiologist and professor of medicine in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, is using new MRI techniques it developed to detect injury to the lungs, heart and brain. The researchers hope to get a clearer picture of how the virus causes inflammation in the organs, how long it takes for symptoms to run their course and how it affects people’s functional abilities.

“Certainly the most common issues people have with COVID-19 are lung infection and shortness of breath. There’s also a lot of evidence that COVID-19 affects people’s brain and memory. There is also evidence of heart damage in up to 45 per cent of hospitalized patients with COVID-19,” said Paterson. “We're interested to study all of these things in people with COVID-19 and learn more about the long-term effects in patients.”

The team is recruiting more than 220 patients from across Alberta for the Multi-organ Imaging with Serial Testing (MOIST) study, including patients who are newly diagnosed and others who had COVID-19 within the previous three to six months and recovered.

For most people, study participation will involve a blood test soon after they enrol, followed by further testing about three months later. Along with getting an MRI of the brain, heart and lungs in the followup session, participants will also receive tests for memory, smell and lung function.

“There's still a lot about COVID-19 that we don't understand, and our knowledge is evolving,” said Paterson. “Certainly there's a lot of press about patients having long-term effects of COVID-19 in terms of their exercise tolerance—they get tired or winded more easily—and some people describe brain fog. So we're trying to quantify and measure how prevalent this is and get a better understanding of these potential disabilities, if any, people have from COVID-19.”

Results from the study will be compared against a healthy control group, giving the team greater insight into the effects of the virus. Paterson is hopeful it will also give important clues to difficult clinical questions.

“There are some studies suggesting that abnormalities of smell or inability to smell is a predictor of cognitive decline and dementia. So we're wanting to see in our study if there is any link between people who are reporting reduced smell and how they do on our cognitive testing.”

It’s hoped the knowledge gained from the study will lead to treatment solutions for people who are having ongoing symptoms. Patients who appear to need longer-term followup will also be referred to a clinic focused on COVID-19 “long-haulers” that operates out of the Kaye Edmonton Clinic, added Paterson.

The team hopes to end recruitment for the study in late summer or early fall, with initial results expected by the end of 2021. Further information about the study and how to enrol in it can be found on the website Be The Cure.

The MOIST study is funded through support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.