PNNL scientists study breath of local COVID-19 patients to learn more about virus

Pnnl & Kadlec Study Breath Of Covid 19 Patients

RICHLAND, Wash. — Throughout the pandemic, many businesses and industries have had to adapt or completely change their business models to stay afloat.

Some have made changes simply to become more relevant. A Pacific Northwest National Laboratory research project was no exception.

Last year, a group of PNNL scientists began work on a project they called BRAVE – Biomedical Resilience and Readiness in Adverse Operating Environments. Chemist Paul Piehowski had developed a new technique analyzing exhaled breath using a technique called proteomics. One of the goals was to look at firefighters that were fighting wildfires and see how the conditions impacted their immune system. 

“Before COVID-19 happened that was one of the biggest stories,” he said.

Then the pandemic hit.

“We pivoted nearly instantly,” said Piehowski. “We thought, this is a respiratory infection and can we use this technique and apply it to COVID-19.”

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They did just that, partnering with Kadlec Regional Medical Center to study ventilated patients in their ICU.

“When you’re on a breathing machine you lack that humidifying capability…so we use small filters,” said Dr. Phani Kantamneni, who works in the ICU at Kadlec. “At the end of the every shift we usually disconnect [the filters] and throw them away.”

Now, they send them to scientists at PNNL to analyze. Using proteomics, scientists extract what’s sticking to the filter and look at the proteins. Those signatures can reveal information about the person’s immune response, like how much inflammation is going on in lungs.

“Our goal was to look at this and say, we know what normal respiratory responses look like, what is different about COVID-19, how are the lungs responding to this infection?” said Piehowski. “Hopefully if we can tell what’s unique about this response we can figure out things we can do to blunt that response or treat it in other ways.”

Researchers are currently collecting data from ten severe COVID-19 patients, ten with non-COVID-19 infections and one control group. Piehowski expects they will be done collecting data in a couple of months. The PNNL researchers will then analyze the data and eventually submit it to be peer-reviewed.

Along with opening the door for future partnerships between PNNL and Kadlec, the hope is to learn more about this novel coronavirus throughout the study.

“We are in the middle of this pandemic with minimal understanding of this disease and so it adds to the growing knowledge,” said Dr. Kantamneni. “As a physician that’s most exciting to me.”