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."
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."