Secrets in the Lungs

March 18, 2021

It’s what we picture when we think of COVID-19 taking hold: breathing problems severe enough to require treatment with oxygen or even a ventilator.

While it’s clear COVID-19 attacks the lungs, the question remains: why do some people become so sick, and others do not?

Researchers at St. Boniface Hospital believe the answer might be found in the lungs’ lipids – the fatty molecules that make up the building blocks of the structure and function of living cells.

“Something occurs in the sicker COVID patients – a massive inflammatory syndrome,” said Dr. Amir Ravandi, Principal Investigator, Cardiovascular Lipidomics and Staff Interventional Cardiologist with the Hospital. “We are looking at lipids to first understand how they’ve changed in the sickest patients and then to develop potential therapies to block the action of lethal lung lipids.”

Ravandi and his St. Boniface Hospital colleague, Dr. Harold Aukema, Principal Investigator, Nutrition and Lipid Mediators with the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research, are members of a cross-disciplinary team that includes representatives from the University of Manitoba, Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg, and Canada’s National Microbiology Labs.

It’s the first-ever investigation into the relationship between lipids and COVID-19, Ravandi said.

“We want to know if the lipids – these fat molecules in the lungs – are predictive. Will they help explain why some people do worse? And will it be possible to intervene medically to change the lung lipids to improve outcomes?”

The research requires an examination of live samples – biological extracts. These samples are collected daily for a period of 11 days from critically ill COVID-19 patients relying on a ventilator to help them breathe.

“The patients are unable to cough, so respiratory therapists and doctors are using suction to remove what these patients cannot expel on their own. We’re drawing our sample from what this suctioning process collects. These samples include the live virus, so a lot of precautions are in place, of course. We’re fortunate to have a lot of collaborative knowledge across the team.”

A mass spectrometer on site at the Hospital’s Albrechtsen Research Centre is essential for a key step in the research. By accurately measuring the mass of different molecules within a sample, the instrument allows a researcher to identify a particular type of molecule, including lipids. Just as importantly, Ravandi added, the mass spectrometer quantifies the presence of a particular type of molecule, indicating whether its number is going up, or down.

In early 2021, the project is in its initial stages.

“We’ve begun collecting our samples. Our hope is that this year we’ll have completed the study and we’ll have results to see which lipid molecules are part and parcel of patients getting very sick. Then the next phase would be to focus on developing an antibody – a kind of therapeutic surgical strike – for delivery directly into the lungs.”

Ravandi invites St. Boniface Hospital Foundation donors to take pride in this project.

“This research is possible because of our unique expertise. We’re one of the few facilities in the country that dedicates itself to looking at the role lipids play in different diseases.”

“It really wouldn’t be possible without donor support.”

You can join us in this critical response effort by giving to our COVID-19 Response Fund.