How Seriously Should We Take the Promising News on Long COVID?
One of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way in which it has forced us to question our hopes. In normal times, hope is a tonic we take in small doses to keep us moving forward through the slog of daily life. The pandemic, however, has made it a much scarcer commodity, spurring us not only to seek it more desperately but to scrutinize it more closely.
Every bit of reassurance seems to come with caveats: Masks can shield us from the coronavirus, but they may need to be doubled in some situations to provide adequate protection. Vaccines work, but they may not be as effective against some viral variants—and they can cause extremely rare but serious side effects. Every few weeks, another potential miracle cure makes headlines (Hydroxychloroquine! Convalescent plasma!), only to prove disappointing on closer inspection. It's hard to know which alleged breakthroughs are worth pinning our hopes on, and which are the products of wishful thinking or hucksterism.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in long-haul patients.
Lately, two possible sources of hope have emerged concerning so-called "long COVID"—the debilitating syndrome, estimated to affect up to one-third of patients, in which physical, neurological, and cognitive symptoms persist for months. The first encouraging item has gotten plenty of media attention: reports that some long-haulers feel better after being vaccinated. The second item, while less widely covered, has caused a stir among scientists: a study suggesting that rebalancing the gut microbiome—the community of microorganisms in our intestines—could decrease both the severity and duration of the illness.
How optimistic should we allow ourselves to be about either of these developments? Experts warn that it's too soon to tell. Yet research into how vaccines and gut bacteria affect long-haulers—and how both factors might work together—could eventually help solve key pieces of the pandemic puzzle.
Investigating the Role of the Gut Microbiome
The idea that there may be a link between COVID-19 and gut health comes as no surprise to Jessica Lovett. Her case began in June 2020 with gastrointestinal distress—a symptom that was just beginning to be recognized as commonplace in what had initially been considered a respiratory illness. "I had diarrhea three to five times a day for two months," Lovett recalls. "I lost a lot of weight." By July, she was also suffering shortness of breath, chest pain, racing heartbeat, severe fatigue, brain fog, migraines, memory lapses, and more. As with many other COVID long-haulers, these troubles waxed and waned in an endless parade.
Lovett was the marketing manager for a music school in Austin, Texas, and the mother of a two-year-old boy. Just before she got sick, she ran a 5K race for her 40th birthday. Afterward, she had to give up her job, stop driving, and delegate childcare to her husband (who fell ill shortly before she did but recovered in 12 days). Tests showed no visible damage to her lungs, heart, or other organs. But she felt intuitively that taming her GI troubles would be key to getting well. On the advice of fellow patients in a long-COVID Facebook group—and, later, with the guidance of a doctor—she tried avoiding foods thought to trigger histamine reactions or inflammation. That seemed to help some, as did nutritional supplements, antihistamines, and angina medications. Still, she relapsed frequently, and was often bedridden.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in patients like Lovett. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong examined blood and stool samples and medical records from 100 hospital patients with lab-confirmed COVID-19 infections, and from 78 people without the disease who were taking part in a microbiome study before the pandemic.
The team, led by professor Siew Chien Ng, found that the makeup of the gut microbiome differed sharply between the two groups. Patients with COVID had higher levels of three bacterial species than those without the infection, but lower levels of several species known to enhance immune system response. Reductions in two of those species—Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Bifidobacterium bifidum—were associated with more severe symptoms. And the numbers of such helpful bacteria remained low in stool samples collected up to 30 days after infected patients had seemingly cleared the coronavirus from their bodies.
Analysis of blood samples, moreover, showed that these bacterial imbalances correlated with higher levels of inflammatory cytokines (immune system chemicals that are elevated in many patients with severe COVID-19) and markers of tissue damage, such as C-reactive protein.
These findings led the researchers to suggest that rebalancing the microbiome might lessen not only the intensity of COVID symptoms, but also their persistence. "Bolstering of beneficial gut species depleted in COVID-19," they wrote, "could serve as a novel avenue to mitigate severe disease, underscoring the importance of managing patients' gut biota during and after COVID-19."
Soon afterward, Ng revealed that she was working on a solution. Her team, she told Medscape, had developed "a microbiome immunity product that is targeted to what is missing in COVID-19 patients." Early research showed that hospitalized patients who received the treatment developed more antibodies, had fewer symptoms, and were discharged sooner. "So it is quite a bright and promising future," she enthused, "in alleviating some of these detrimental effects of the virus."
The Chicken-and-Egg Problem
Ng's study isn't the only one to suggest a connection between the gut and long COVID. Researchers led by gastroenterologist Saurabh Mehandru at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital recently determined that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can linger in the intestines for months after a patient tests negative. Some studies have also found that gastrointestinal symptoms in the acute phase of the illness correlate with poorer outcomes—though that's far from settled. (In another study, Mehandru's team found lower mortality among patients presenting with GI symptoms.) But the Hong Kong group's paper was the first to posit that resident microbes may play a decisive role in the disease.
That view reflects growing evidence that these bugs can influence a range of ailments, from diabetes to schizophrenia. Over the past decade, the gut microbiome has emerged as a central regulator of the immune system. Some intestinal bacteria emit chemicals that signal immune cells to reduce production of inflammatory proteins, or help those cells effectively target invading pathogens. They also help maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining—preventing the syndrome known as "leaky gut," in which harmful microbes or toxins penetrate to the underlying tissue, potentially wreaking havoc throughout the body and brain.
Nonetheless, many experts have responded to Ng's findings with distinct caution. One problem, they point out, is the chicken-and-egg question: Do reduced levels of beneficial gut bacteria trigger the inflammation seen in COVID-19, or does inflammation triggered by COVID-19 kill off beneficial gut bacteria? "It's an issue of causality versus just association," explains Somsouk Ma, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of California, San Francisco. "I tend to think that the shift in microbes is more likely a consequence of the infection. But, of course, that's just speculation."
A related issue is whether a pill that replenishes "good" bacteria can really combat the effects of COVID-19—whether acute or chronic. Although scientists are studying fecal transplants and other probiotic therapies for many disorders, none has yet been approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. "The only situation where bacterial transplantation is known to work is in a form of colitis called Clostridium difficile," notes Mehandru. "I think it's a bit premature to lay too much emphasis on this in the context of COVID."
Placebo-controlled clinical trials will be needed to determine the efficacy of Ng's approach. (Consumer warning: The bacteria she's employing are not found in commercially available probiotics.) Whatever the results, such research—along with studies that track patients' gut microbiomes before, during, and after COVID-19 infection—could help scientists understand why some people have such trouble kicking the disease.
An Unexpected Benefit of Vaccines
The question of what causes long COVID is also central to understanding the effects of vaccines on the condition. In March, as inoculation campaigns took off across the nation, many long-haulers were delighted to see their symptoms disappear within days of getting the shot. "I woke up and it was like, 'Oh what a beautiful morning,'" one patient told The New York Times.
Yet the effects have been far from uniform. Although scientific surveys have not yet been conducted, an April poll by a Facebook group called Survivor Corps found numbers close to experts' estimates: 39 percent said they experienced partial to full recovery post-vaccination; 46 percent saw no difference; and 14 percent felt worse.
How could vaccines—which are designed to prevent COVID-19, not cure it—help some chronic patients get well? In a blog post, Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki suggested that the answer depends on what is driving a particular patient's symptoms. Iwasaki identified three possible mechanisms behind long COVID: 1) a persistent viral reservoir; 2) a "viral ghost," composed of fragments of the virus (RNA or proteins) that linger after the infection has been cleared but can still stimulate inflammation; and 3) an autoimmune response triggered by the infection, inducing a patient's immune cells to attack her own tissues.
These mechanisms "are not mutually exclusive," Iwasaki wrote, "and all three might benefit from the vaccines." If a patient has a viral reservoir, vaccine-induced immune cells and antibodies might be able to eliminate it. If the patient has a viral ghost, those vaccine-primed immune responses might knock it out as well. And if the patient is suffering from a COVID-triggered autoimmune syndrome, the vaccine might act as a decoy, shifting the immune system's attention to antigens contained in the shot (and perhaps reprogramming autoimmune cells in the process). The varying role of these underlying factors, and possibly others—such as the gut microbiome—might also help explain why vaccines don't benefit all long-haulers equally. Iwasaki and her team recently launched a clinical study to investigate this theory.
Pato Hebert, a professor of art and public policy at NYU, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 while on sabbatical in Los Angeles. Hebert, then 50, started out with mild flu-like symptoms, but he was slammed with fatigue, headaches, and confusion a week after testing positive. In April, he landed in urgent care with severe shortness of breath. His brain fog worsened that summer, and a gentle swim brought on a dizzy spell so overwhelming that he feared it was a stroke. (Thankfully, tests showed it wasn't.) In September, he developed severe GI issues, which came and went over the following months. He found some relief through medications, dietary adjustments, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and careful conservation of his physical and mental energy—but a year after his diagnosis, he was still sick.
Hebert received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on March 1, 2021; it made no difference in his symptoms. After his second dose, on the 29th, he suffered terrible headaches—"like early COVID days," he told me. A week later, his condition had improved slightly compared to pre-vaccination. "With a few exceptions, my fatigue and brain fog have been less challenging," he reported. "I'm cautiously optimistic." But in late April, he suffered another flareup of respiratory and GI issues.
For Jessica Lovett, the vaccine's effects were more dramatic. After her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech formula, on February 26, her cognitive symptoms improved enough that she was able to drive again; within a week, she was pushing her son uphill in a stroller, lifting light weights, and running for short distances. After the second dose, she says, "I had incredible energy. It was insane, like I drank three cups of coffee."
Lovett (who now runs a Facebook support group for Austin locals, ATX Covid Long Haulers) stresses that the vaccine hasn't cured her. She winds up back in bed whenever she pushes herself too hard. She still needs to take antihistamines and shun certain foodstuffs; any slip-up brings another relapse. Yet she's able to live more fully than at any time since she fell ill—and she has begun to feel a renewed sense of hope.
Recently, in fact, she and her husband decided to expand their family. "I guess that tells you something," she says with a laugh. "The doctors have given us the okay, and we're going to try."
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”