The entire world started to shut down earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and most businesses came to a standstill. The streets are now quiet and face masks commonplace. People are working from home, many parks and beaches are still vacant and the concern over the spread of the new severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has taken precedence over all other news. The world changed tremendously in just days.
But as lights went out in schools, restaurants, department stores and hotels around the world, they’ve remained on in research laboratories committed to understanding how SARS-CoV-2 infects the body to cause the disease known as COVID-19. Researchers are also exploring how to treat COVID-19 and how to stop the spread of the virus. At treatment facilities such as Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii research physiologists like me, along with doctors and engineers, have teamed up to quickly find ways to help people with COVID-19 recover from the disease.
The lungs are one of the main organs that become injured by SARS-CoV-2 infection. Researchers are testing treatments such as the antiviral drug remdesivir and nitric oxide to help with breathing. Remdesivir blocks the virus from damaging the lungs, and nitric oxide helps blood vessels relax and dilate. Researchers are also evaluating newly developed technology such as split ventilators that allow more than one person to be on a single ventilator unit.
Understanding Physiology Is Critical to Fighting COVID-19
For each of the new treatments and devices created to combat COVID-19, it is critical to make sure they are safe to use in people. This is where understanding of human physiology is very important. For instance, treatment with remdesivir can reduce the amount of the virus in your body and has helped people who are severely ill with COVID-19 recover faster. But the drug is known to damage the liver and the immune system, so it is very important to know how well a patient’s liver and immune system are functioning before using it as a treatment.
Even as I write this, there are new findings that COVID-19 directly affects not only the lungs but also the brain, kidneys, blood vessels and blood cells. This makes treatment of COVID-19 very difficult. Scientists and bioengineers need to take into consideration how the different organs of the body coordinate to keep you alive and healthy—the knowledge of how all the organs, tissues and cell work together in health and disease is the basis of physiological study.
The trouble with finding the best treatment for COVID-19 is that the symptoms are so different from one person to the next. Children seem to be less vulnerable to COVID-19, older people are more vulnerable and some young adults are dying from strokes caused by the coronavirus rather than respiratory issues. As we find out more about how COVID-19 affects the body, it is clear that there will be more than one best way to fight it.
In my eyes, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the value of scientific research, especially research that helps us understand human physiology. In a few short months, scientists have sequenced the genome of the virus, discovered how SARS-CoV-2 infects cells by attaching its “spikes” to a protein on cells and developed new potential treatments. It will be the research physiologist’s job to study and understand how to best use these medicines and devices to treat COVID-19 patients.
Dao H. Ho, PhD, is a biomedical research physiologist at Tripler Army Medical Center. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.