Making the invisible, visible: Ont. researchers use new imaging technique to see COVID-19 impact on lungs
The technique is also leading to 'cutting edge brain imaging'; co-invented by Lakehead University professor
A chemistry professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and the imaging technique he co-invented, are part of an Ontario-wide research project that has received nearly $1-million over two years to study the long-term effects of COVID-19 on people's lungs.
It's already known the coronavirus can lead to pneumonia, lung inflammation and respiratory failure, but now scientists believe the damage caused by the infection may be irreversible.
They're hoping to get a better idea of what exactly is happening inside our airways and surrounding tissues and blood vessels, said Mitchell Albert, who is also the research chair at the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute.
First, a person breathes in a noble gas, such as xenon, which dissolves into the blood.
Then, using hyperpolarized 129Xe magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in combination with computed tomography (CT), researchers are able to see what is going on inside the airways, all the way to what is happening in tiny alveoli.
'Absolutely lights up the lungs'
"The xenon gets inhaled into the lungs and then it absolutely lights up the lungs in the MRI," said Albert.
"It makes the invisible become visible and we can see exactly how the lungs are functioning. We can look at the ventilation, the function and also structure of the airways, the lung tissue and also probe the blood vessels in the lungs and see exactly how healthy" the system is.
He explained that this technique allows researchers to see the extent of scarring on the lungs or surrounding tissues, and observe any blockages in the airway.
"When somebody presents with a very serious case of COVID, we know that their lung function has been compromised, they're very, very important to follow-up long-term," said Albert.
But this technique may be even more important for understanding the long-term prognosis of someone who had just a mild case of the disease.
Long-term impacts of COVID unknown
"We don't know what the long-term consequences are, even for mild cases. When the pandemic first hit, we thought only the lungs were affected and now we're finding many other organs in the body — the heart, the kidneys, the pancreas, the liver, almost all tissues of the body are affected," he said, noting this imaging technique may be expanded to scan those organs as well.
"So, even for people with mild cases, they need to be looked at and followed to see what the damage is from the acute phase of the disease and then what are the long-term consequences and see if they're improving, if they're getting better or getting worse" and require medication or further therapy.
But Albert said this imaging technique isn't just helping scientists understand COVID-19. It will soon provide new insights into the functioning of our brain.
'Cutting edge brain imaging' is next step
"We just developed a really really cutting edge brain imaging technique," that allows doctors to see what is happening inside the brain while a person is performing a function, such as speaking or moving their fingers.
"Our preliminary studies showed it to be about 100-times more powerful than the conventional technique," said Albert, adding it could revolutionize brain surgery and offer new information on everything from Alzheimers to autism to epilepsy.
"Just understanding how the brain is used for imagery, imagining things, memory, sleep, dreams and for surgery guidance."
The study into the impact of the coronavirus on the lungs is receiving $876,000 over two years from the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund.
The research team includes co-investigators and collaborators from the Hospital for Sick Children, Western University, Lakehead University, McMaster University and Ryerson University.
You can hear the full interview with Prof. Albert on CBC's Superior Morning here.