Bonn Researchers Screen for Anomalies in the Blood
Bonn/Germany, May 21, 2021. Some individuals who have endured infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus subsequently suffer from serious health complaints. These long-term consequences are referred to as “Long COVID”. Bonn scientists intend to search for causes of this in the blood. To this end, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) is funding two projects led by the DZNE with a total of around 500,000 euros. Moreover, the DZNE is involved in a research project that particularly focuses on signs of neurodegeneration in Long COVID.
Chronic fatigue, shortness of breath and memory problems are some of the long-term effects people report after infection with the coronavirus. It is estimated that about one in ten individuals who have experienced infection with SARS-CoV-2 is affected. “Long COVID is an urging issue, and we still know little about its causes. This makes effective treatment difficult,” said Prof. Joachim Schultze, Director of Systems Medicine at DZNE. Within the framework of the now funded projects, for which the DZNE is cooperating with the University of Bonn and other institutions, Schultze and colleagues therefore intend to test the blood of Long COVID patients for anomalies. Using state-of-the-art genomics techniques, the scientists will examine the immune cells of the blood – known as “white blood cells” – and analyze their transcriptomes. These are molecular fingerprints that reflect gene activity and thus the condition and function of cells.
“The immune system plays an important role during the acute phase of corona infection. Depending on whether it reacts weakly, adequately or even excessively, a COVID-19 disease will be more or less severe”, Schultze said. “We suspect that in people with Long COVID, the immune system has been durably compromised by the previous infection, and that this condition at least contributes to the health complaints.” The Bonn scientists will therefore look for peculiarities in the immune status of Long COVID patients and also for genetic risk factors. Thanks to the nationwide collaboration with various research partners – including members of the German COVID-19 OMICS Initiative (DeCOI) – data from several cohorts and thus numerous patients will be included in the analyses.
In previous research on COVID-19, Schultze and colleagues found reasons why the immune system sometimes fails to respond properly, and they were also able to identify different patient groups – based on the immune response. “For our new studies, we do not have to start from scratch, but benefit from our experience and established cooperations with many scientific partners”, Schultze said.
Searching for Nerve Damage
To contribute to a comprehensive understanding of Long COVID, the DZNE is also following other avenues: For the research project COVIMMUNE of the University Hospital and the University of Bonn, which covers different aspects of Long COVID, the DZNE provides technology for the detection of nerve damage. “When neurons in the brain are damaged or even die, remnants of the cytoskeleton can reach the bloodstream. We will look for these neurofilaments in blood samples from patients using a specialized technique. Their presence may indicate neurodegenerative processes,” said Prof. Michael Heneka, director of the Department for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Gerontopsychiatry at the University Hospital Bonn and a research group leader at the DZNE. “In fact, COVID-19 is suspected to increase the risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease in the long term, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. Studies on the late effects of a corona infection are important to determine whether there is indeed an increased risk for neurodegeneration.”