Sudbury researcher part of Canadian project into COVID-19 infections in seniors

A Sudbury doctor is part of a research project underway to determine how seniors react to viruses that may be spreading in the community.

Dr. Chris Verschoor, along with researchers from McMaster U., looking into immune system responses

Dr. Chris Verschoor is an immunologist at Health Sciences North in Sudbury. (Supplied by Health Sciences North)

A Sudbury doctor is part of a research project underway to determine how seniors react to viruses that may be spreading in the community.

Dr. Chris Verschoor says a team of researchers, led by doctors at McMaster University, are taking blood samples of seniors in long term care in Sudbury and across the country –  25 LTC homes in total – which will help determine a senior's immunity to viruses.

The idea is to track people's past interactions with viruses similar to COVID-19 and measure if an immune system response has already been built.

"We're hoping that this research tells us what makes a given [LTC] home or a given person have greater risk than another home or another person," Verschoor said. 

"And potentially, that would allow that home to initiate stricter measures, different types of measures."

Verschoor, who was recently named the lead of Healthy Aging Research at Health Sciences North and the Research Institute, said a simple blood test can help uncover a "fountain of knowledge."

"Blood is an amazing thing," he said. "You know, we kind of look at it as the red stuff that comes out when we cut ourselves, but it is just full of amazing molecules themselves." 

"And then you drill deep down, when we use our fancy lab equipment, and see these white blood cells that do all the fighting for us and regulate immune responses. "

The number of blood cells, he says, are staggering.

"They all play different roles and they sort of have this intricate relationship among them. So we can look at different types of cells, for example, and they might tell us, you know, are they already in a state where they're able to respond to a virus that comes?"

(CBC News)

"Or are they in a more sleepy senescent type? This is something we would somewhat expect in older adults, especially individuals in long term care homes, where their cells might not respond as they do."

Verschoor said another fascinating element to blood cells is the immune "history" they carry with them.

"There's seasonal coronaviruses that have been circulating for years," he said. "So if you had responded to a seasonal coronavirus 40 years ago, there's still a likelihood that you have immune cells circulating in your body that are waiting to respond to that exact same virus again."

Although COVID-19 is a new virus, it may be close enough to a previous one that the immune system recognizes it. 

"Those seasonal colds, they are a pain that we have to live with. There's no cure for it, but it helps build and train your immune system to be ready for that next thing."

At the end, Verschoor said he hopes the research will help doctors and immunologists be prepared for the next health crisis.

"It's the kind of thing that probably won't do a heck of a lot for the current pandemic we're going through," he said. "But in the future, it'll help us really understand outbreaks."

"Because the influenza virus, it's not really here this year, thank goodness, but it's not going anywhere," he said. "It's going to be back next year, and the year after."

"But another type of outbreak or even a pandemic or an epidemic of another virus, we're hoping that this research tells us what makes a given home or given person have greater risk than another home." 


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