More than a year after COVID-19 sent her to the hospital for seven days, which included treatment with low amounts of supplemental oxygen, Sophia Holton is still suffering symptoms from the virus: headaches, pain, shortness of breath, and low energy.
But many other patients, who had far more severe cases, do not have lingering symptoms. To uncover the mystery of why, researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) began creating a large biorepository of COVID-19 patients who have been hospitalized during the pandemic.
“Sophia was only in the hospital for seven days and only required a nasal cannula for oxygen treatment during her stay, but now she has to be on supplemental oxygen every day and is still battling other symptoms,” said Louise McCullough, MD, PhD, professor and Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Distinguished Chair in the Department of Neurology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “We are analyzing blood samples to determine if there is something in the immune response of these patients, or if there is some other common denominator to explain why they might have a mild case of COVID-19 initially and then develop all of these long-lasting and disabling symptoms.”
To create a COVID-19 biobank in April 2020, physicians and researchers in the Department of Neurology were able to quickly expand the department’s BioRepository of Neurological Disorders to collect samples and data from coronavirus patients hospitalized at Memorial Hermann Health System hospitals.
After their initial hospitalization, the patients are followed by a team led by McCullough and H. Alex Choi, MD, associate professor in the Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at McGovern Medical School. McCullough and Choi see patients at UTHealth Neurosciences, one of the clinical practices of McGovern Medical School.
Holton’s experience with COVID-19 began when she developed a fever, sore throat, loss of taste, and exhaustion in May 2020. While she was hospitalized at Memorial Hermann-TMC, Holton agreed to submit blood samples to the biorepository for COVID-19 samples.
She has suffered a headache every single day since she left the hospital and it took a couple of months for her sense of taste and smell to return. Her oxygen levels are slowly improving and she is able to do more for herself lately than she has in months.
“The shortness of breath has been the worst. I still get winded just walking around the house,” she said. “A couple of weeks ago I finally had the energy to sweep the house.”
Holton meets with the research team at three-month intervals, where they draw blood and perform cognitive tests in order to help track symptoms. She is the first patient the biorepository has followed for an entire year.
“This is discovery science,” McCullough said. “We know very little about COVID-19, but what we do know is that it has a very unique ability to cause long-term symptoms, or what we have termed ‘long COVID.’ Now, we are studying what puts a person more at risk for developing these long-term symptoms, and potentially find new treatments.”
McCullough isn’t sure how long these patients will need to be followed to get the full picture of how COVID-19 affected their bodies. “It might be as long as 15 to 20 years as we continue to try and determine if COVID-19 puts someone at higher risk for or triggers other diseases, especially as they age,” she said.
Holton hopes that being part of the biobank can help solve the mystery of why some people recover quickly with no long-lasting symptoms, and others struggle even after the virus has seemingly left their body.
“It might not help me, but I might be able to help the doctors discover something that could help the next person,” Holton said.
Co-investigators for the biorepository, which continues to collect COVID-19 samples, are research administrator Lori A. Capozzi; research scientist Gabriela Delevati Colpo, PhD; research coordinators Glenda Torres and Hilda Ahnstedt, PhD; and research assistants Shivanki Juneja, Eric Mohan, and Lucy Couture.
The BioRepository of Neurological Disorders was established in 2016 and is funded through a generous gift from the Huffington Foundation.