Olympic gold medallist Alex Kopacz may be used to being out of breath when pushing a bobsled, but last year after he was hospitalized for COVID-19, he experienced a very different kind of breathlessness.
Kopacz was put on oxygen for two months and experienced a number of other health setbacks in the months following his COVID-19 infection, including blood clots in his lungs and throughout his body. It took him almost four months before he was back on his feet and breathing normally again.
Kopacz was one of 34 people who were evaluated months after their infection started as part of a new Canadian post-COVID syndrome research trial -— a study that has identified a potential key culprit causing some people to continue experiencing breathing issues months after contracting COVID-19.
A team of researchers based at across Ontario have zeroed in on a microscopic abnormality in the way oxygen moves from the lungs which could explain why these patients feel breathless and are unable to perform strenuous activities, says lead researcher Grace Parraga, Tier 1 Canada research chair in lung imaging at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
“Those feelings of breathlessness are completely consistent with our finding that we’re not moving the oxygen as efficiently as we should,” she said. “It’s very exciting for us to actually find something that’s wrong — that it’s in the patient’s lungs and not in their head.” Parraga said.
Using an MRI technique developed by Western University that is five times as sensitive and has five times the spatial resolution of a CT scan, the researchers were able to see how tiny branches of air tubes in the lungs were moving oxygen into the red blood cells of their patients.
Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Any disruption in the flow of this oxygen to red blood cells will trigger the brain to say, ‘breathe more’ — resulting in a feeling of breathlessness, Parraga explained.
All 34 of the patients who participated in the study were experiencing problems in the level of oxygen being absorbed by their red blood cells. And they all had the same result, regardless of the severity of their symptoms or whether they had been hospitalized for COVID-19 — another key find, Parraga said.
“All these patients had this abnormality. They all had really serious symptoms, so their exercise scores were low, they were breathless when they exercised and when we measured the oxygen levels in their blood in the tips of their fingers after exercise, that was also low.”
And these external measurements corresponded to the abnormality the researchers found in their MRI measurement of the lungs. The reason why this anomaly is happening is not yet known. But identifying this as a possible trigger for these patients’ symptoms is an important step in trying to learn more.