Covid 19 and pulmonary fibrosis research

October 2021

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on respiratory health, and the need to better understand and treat respiratory illness has never been more pressing.

APF is part of a charities working group involved in a UK wide study (PHOSP-COVID) aimed at understanding and improving the health outcomes for patients who have had Covid-19. APF Trustee, Professor Gisli Jenkins at Imperial College London leads the interstitial lung disease section of this research.

Prof. Jenkins and his colleagues have recently been awarded a £2 million UK Research and Innovation grant to investigate the long-term effects of Covid-19 on patients’ lungs.  Our research fellows, Dr Richard Allen and Dr Phil Molyneux are also working on this grant. They hope to better understand the extent of post-Covid-19 lung damage and scarring, identify who is more at risk and why, and monitor whether lung damage resolves, persists or progresses over time.

Photo of Prof Gisli Jenkins, APF Trustee

It is not yet known whether post-Covid-19 lung damage leads to progressive pulmonary fibrosis. A cutting-edge technology, called xenon magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will be used to monitor participants over time. This technique has been pioneered by Professor Jim Wild and the POLARIS team at the University of Sheffield, who will be leading this part of the study.

MRI is an imaging technique that can be used to investigate how the lungs look (their structure) and how they work (their function). In xenon MRI, a person breathes in a harmless gas that has special properties, during an MRI scan. The gas is called hyperpolarised xenon-129. The inhaled gas travels into the person’s lungs and then into the blood stream in a similar way that oxygen does. The special properties of the gas mean that its movement within the lungs and into the bloodstream can be tracked.

The information recorded during the scan provides very detailed information about the structure and function of the person’s lungs. The POLARIS team have previously used xenon MRI to better understand and monitor the progression of PF. Their research provides evidence that this technique can detect changes in a patient’s lungs.

As well as its devastating impact on people’s lives Covid-19 has also affected pulmonary fibrosis research, with many studies being delayed or paused during these challenging times. However, the pandemic has also led to healthcare professionals and researchers rapidly developing new ways of working so that they can carry out research in innovative ways.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on respiratory health, and the need to better understand and treat respiratory illness has never been more pressing before these can be picked up by some standard pulmonary function tests. Similar findings are emerging from the study of post-Covid-19 patients.

With the use of xenon MRI, the POLARIS team and researchers from the University of Oxford have been able to show that patients who reported persistent breathlessness post-Covid did indeed have persistent lung damage, despite standard clinical tests indicating that their lungs were normal. This is an exciting development because it suggests that disease progression can be detected early and accurately using this sensitive technique.

Dedicated research into Covid-19 is generating new knowledge and understanding of lung damage, which in turn may lead to benefits for the pulmonary fibrosis community.

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