By Denise Flock-Williams
Pennington Biomedical researchers have applied their expertise throughout the pandemic and are part of a national study on long COVID.
LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center has long been recognized as a global leader in the search for solutions to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and especially obesity. Historically, viral disease has not been an area of focus for the 450 scientists and researchers, lab technicians, nurses, dietitians, and support personnel who make up the center.
When SARS-CoV-2 first arrived in the United States, Pennington Biomedical didn’t initially seem primed to join the global fight against the pandemic; however, it mobilized resources, leveraged partnerships with academic medical institutions across the state, and stood up programs to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Estimates of People With Long Covid
One month after infection
Three months or longer after infection
Six months after infection among hospitalized patients
“Our research, clinical trials, and outreach have traditionally focused on chronic disease, but we couldn’t escape the fact that we were literally sitting in the epicenter of the COVID pandemic. You will remember that New Orleans, Seattle, and New York City were the first cities to deal with widespread outbreaks,” said Pennington Biomedical Executive Director John Kirwan. “We immediately understood that Pennington Biomedical has the infrastructure, the expertise, and the relationships in the community to quickly pivot our focus to address the most urgent health need in the state, country, and world at the time.”
Because of the experience and success with large multi-center clinical trials, Kirwan is currently leading Louisiana’s participation in the national RECOVER initiative, or Researching Covid to Enhance Recovery. The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, created the RECOVER initiative to learn more about the long-term effects of COVID so that one day in the future, we will know how to prevent, mitigate, and treat “long COVID.”
Dr. Daniel Hsia, associate professor at Pennington Biomedical, leads the pediatric arm of the RECOVER initiative locally. He says with the majority of Americans and with nearly 80 percent of children having had COVID-19, the number of individuals left with long-lasting health impacts is potentially astronomical. Dr. Hsia says some scientists speculate “the next pandemic is long COVID.”
Dr. Frank Greenway is the chief medical officer at Pennington Biomedical and leads Pennington’s participation on the adult side of the RECOVER initiative.
“People who have long COVID are calling their congressional representatives, urging research on potential treatments. Long COVID is so new that we must first learn more about the disease itself so we can design rational tests for it,” he said.
Dr. Hsia points out the initial overarching goal of the RECOVER initiative is to better understand how to define long COVID and to identify who is at the highest risk.
“Although frequently cited symptoms of long COVID are coughing or feeling short of breath, loss of smell or taste, body aches, headaches, brain fog, and fatigue, there is no single consensus or understanding of what exactly long COVID is. We are trying to understand the whole gamut of symptoms,” he said.
In fact, more than 200 symptoms have been linked to long COVID, with new symptoms still being added. Although long COVID is more often associated with individuals who had a severe case of COVID, it is also seen in individuals who had a mild or even an asymptomatic case.
Dr. Hsia said ultimately this study will help to inform new treatments for long COVID.
Dr. Greenway added there is a promising supplement being tested at Pennington Biomedical alongside the RECOVER initiative. Several of the other RECOVER clinical sites in Louisiana, including LSU Health New Orleans and Tulane, are also testing the supplement called Immulina, which is derived from algae.
“Immulina has some good science behind it that shows it can stimulate the immune system. In cooperation with some of the other sites participating in the RECOVER initiative, Pennington Biomedical is part of the first clinical trial to evaluate Immulina as a treatment for long COVID,” he said.
As an extension of the RECOVER initiative, Kirwan is also leading a new NIH-funded study alongside MaineHealth in Scarborough, Maine, and the University of Kentucky to better understand biological drivers of long COVID. The Pathobiology in Recover Of Metabolic and Immune Systems (PROMIS) study will try to better understand why some patients develop long-term symptoms after COVID-19 infection, whereas others do not.
Even before the pandemic, the center was regarded highly by the NIH and other federal agencies as well as industry for its ability to conduct large clinical studies. The center has more than 100,000 square feet of allocated space with state-of-the-art equipment and imaging capabilities for clinical trials. Because Louisiana’s population is so diverse, clinical trials at Pennington Biomedical can reflect the demographics within the country. According to the U.S. Census, about 41.4 percent of Louisianans are people of color. Very few sites are able to draw such a diverse population to participate in clinical trials as Pennington Biomedical. More than 54,000 citizens throughout Louisiana have participated in a Pennington Biomedical clinical trial, and many more have benefited from the resulting gains in knowledge.
Kirwan notes the center’s participation in the RECOVER initiative is an extension of the work that began the day the virus arrived. The center played an initial role in widespread COVID-19 testing throughout the Baton Rouge area, which led to one of the first papers that demonstrated health disparities were impacting COVID rates and patient outcomes. Stephania Cormier, an immunologist with joint appointments at Pennington Biomedical and LSU, created a saliva test and a lab for COVID-19 when there was a critical shortage of testing and analysis capability. The center also participated in its first vaccine trial in its history and helped to gain approval for a COVID-19 vaccine in children. Later, it became the first mass coronavirus vaccination site in Baton Rouge. In March 2022, Pennington Biomedical began enrolling participants in the RECOVER initiative. The study has generated significant interest from the community.
Dr. Hsia echoed Kirwan’s pride in Pennington Biomedical’s ability to quickly pivot resources to the evolving crisis.
“It is a testament to all of the employees at the center who are collectively addressing the emerging needs of our community, our nation, and the world,” Dr. Hsia said.