While the novel coronavirus is best known for the toll it takes on the lungs, reports from doctors around the world indicate the virus also can injure the heart, even in patients with no history of heart disease.

Researchers, however, don’t yet know what’s happening to the heart in such cases or what role the virus may be playing in causing the injury.

A University of Nebraska Medical Center researcher is one of 12 investigators nationwide to receive an American Heart Association fast-track grant intended to address such questions.

Rebekah Gundry, professor and vice chair of UNMC’s cellular and integrative physiology department, plans to take a cutting-edge approach that will focus on the chainlike sugar structures that stud the surfaces of cells.

The structures, known as glycans, long have been recognized as playing a role in the body’s immune response and in other interactions that cells have with the outside world.

On red blood cells, the patterns of those sugars define the blood type groups familiar to most people — A, B and O.

And somehow, Gundry said, those patterns may be linked to susceptibility to infection.

Recent data, while not confirmed, suggest that people with blood type A have a higher risk of acquiring COVID-19 than those with other blood type groups and that people with type O blood have a lower risk. Similar differences have shown up in other types of viral infections, including the stomach-churning norovirus.

“What really makes it worthwhile going after … (is that) we know glycans are really critical in how the body responds to infections,” Gundry said. “So it’s not a stretch to think that they would play a role in telling us which patients are more susceptible to infections than others.”

Despite their important roles in the body, however, glycans haven’t been well-studied. It’s difficult to do, and few technologies are available that make it possible.

But Gundry and her team, which specializes in analytical chemistry, recently developed a platform that allows them to analyze minuscule samples, like drops of blood, in less than 24 hours.

The platform combines advanced methods for preparing samples, UNMC’s state-of-the-art mass spectrometer and analytical tools. The research also taps the university’s extensive blood and tissue banking collections.

With the heart association grant, Gundry said, the researchers will look deeper at glycans on red blood cells, on a type of white blood cell and in blood plasma. In the end, they hope to identify biomarkers that could indicate whether patients are susceptible or resistant to COVID-19 infection and identify those who may be more susceptible to heart injury.

“We want to help clinicians make the best decision for patient care,” Gundry said.

The heart association received more than 750 proposals from institutions around the country for the fast-track grants, one of the largest responses it has had to a request for applications on a single topic.

Dr. Robert Harrington, the heart association’s president, said the organization was impressed by the level of interest in the program.

“There’s so much we don’t know about this unique coronavirus, and we continue to see emerging complications affecting both heart and brain health, for which we desperately need answers,” Harrington said in a statement. “And we need them quickly.”


Our best staff photos of May 2020

Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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