One of the biggest challenges facing clinicians who treat long COVID is a lack of consensus when it comes to recognizing and diagnosing the condition. But a new study suggests testing for certain biomarkers may identify long COVID with accuracy approaching 80%.
Effective diagnostic testing would be a game-changer in the long COVID fight, for it’s not just the fatigue, brain fog, heart palpitations, and other persistent symptoms that affect patients. Two out of three people with long COVID also suffer mental health challenges like depression and anxiety. Some patients say their symptoms are not taken seriously by their doctors. And as many as 12% of long COVID patients are unemployed because of the severity of their illness and their employers may be skeptical of their condition.
Quick, accurate diagnosis would eliminate all that. Now a new preprint study suggests that the elevation of certain immune system proteins are a commonality in long COVID patients and identifying them may be an accurate way to diagnose the condition.
Researchers at Cardiff University School of Medicine in Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom, tracked 166 patients, 79 of whom had been diagnosed with long COVID and 87 who had not. All participants had recovered from a severe bout of acute COVID-19.
In an analysis of the blood plasma of the study participants, researchers found elevated levels of certain components. Four proteins in particular — Ba, iC3b, C5a, and TCC — predicted the presence of long COVID with 78.5% accuracy.
“I was gobsmacked by the results. We’re seeing a massive dysregulation in those four biomarkers,” says study author Wioleta Zelek, PhD, a research fellow at Cardiff University. “It’s a combination that we showed was predictive of long COVID.”
The study revealed that long COVID was associated with inflammation of the immune system causing these complement proteins to remain dysregulated. Proteins like C3, C4, and C5 are important parts of the immune system because they recruit phagocytes, cells that attack and engulf bacteria and viruses at the site of infection to destroy pathogens like SARS-coV-2.
In the case of long COVID, these proteins remain chronically elevated. While the symptoms of long COVID have seemed largely unrelated to one another, researchers point to elevated inflammation as a connecting factor that causes various systems in the body to go haywire.
“Anything that could help to better diagnose patients with long COVID is research we’re greatly appreciative of within the clinical community,” said Nisha Viswanathan, MD, director of the University of California Los Angeles Long COVID program at UCLA Health in Los Angeles.
Testing for biomarkers highlighted in the study, as well as others like serotonin and cortisol, may help doctors separate patients who have long COVID from patients who have similar symptoms caused by other conditions, said Viswanathan. For example, a recent study published in the journal Cell found lower serotonin levels in long COVID patients compared with patients who were diagnosed with acute COVID-19 but recovered from the condition.
Viswanathan cautions that the biomarker test does not answer all the questions about diagnosing long COVID. For example, Viswanathan said scientists don’t know whether complement dysregulation is caused by long COVID and not another underlying medical issue that patients had prior to infection, because “we don’t know where patients’ levels were prior to developing long COVID.” For example, those with autoimmune issues are more likely to develop long COVID, which means their levels could have been elevated prior to a COVID infection.
It is increasingly likely, said Viswanathan, that long COVID is an umbrella term for a host of conditions that could be caused by different impacts of the virus. Other research has pointed to the different phenotypes of long COVID. For example, some are focused on cardiopulmonary issues and others on fatigue and gastrointestinal problems.
“It looks like these different phenotypes have a different mechanism for disease,” she said. This means that it’s less likely to be a one-size-fits-all condition and the next step in the research should be identifying which biomarker is aligned with which phenotype of the disease.
Better diagnostics will open the door to better treatments, Zelek said. The more doctors understand about the mechanism causing immune dysregulation in long COVID patients, the more they can treat it with existing medications. Zelek’s lab has been studying certain medications like pegcetacoplan (C3 blocker), danicopan (anti-factor D), and iptacopan (anti-factor B) that can be used to break the body’s cycle of inflammation and reduce symptoms experienced in those with long COVID.
These drugs are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of a rare blood disease called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. The C5 inhibitor zilucoplan has also been used in patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and researchers have found that the drug lowered serum C5 and interleukin-8 concentration in the blood, seeming to reduce certain aspects of the immune system’s inflammatory response to the virus.
The Cardiff University research is one of the most detailed studies to highlight long COVID biomarkers to date, said infectious disease specialist Grace McComsey, MD, who leads the long COVID RECOVER study at University Hospitals Health System in Cleveland, Ohio. The research needs to be duplicated in a larger study population that might include the other biomarkers like serotonin and cortisol to see if they’re related, she said.
Researchers are learning more everyday about the various biomarkers that may be linked to long COVID, she added. This Cardiff study showed that a huge percentage of those patients had elevated levels of certain complements. The next step, said McComsey, “is to put all these puzzle pieces together” so that clinicians have a common diagnostic tool or tools that provide patients with some peace of mind in starting their road to recovery.
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Publish date : 2023-11-29 15:23:00
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