Published: 23-02-2024 14:22 | Updated: 26-02-2024 10:13

KI researchers receive grant of SEK 19 million for research on long COVID

Human cells, the virus infects cells, 3D illustration.
Illustration: Getty Images.

Two researchers at Karolinska Institutet have been awarded grants from the PolyBio Research Foundation totalling USD 1.85 million dollars (SEK 19 million) for research into long COVID. It is hoped that the studies will provide valuable insights that can promote the development of more efficacious treatments for long COVID, which is still a puzzling condition.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Marcus Buggert and his group at Karolinska Institutet have studied the COVID-19 virus SARS-CoV-2 in order to identify the underlying causes of long COVID. 

Portrait of Marcus Buggert
Marcus Bugger. Photo: Ulf Sirborn.

"One of our main hypotheses is that the virus remains latent in tissue and is reactivated, causing long-lasting COVID symptoms," says Marcus Buggert, docent and group leader at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge, Karolinska Institutet.

Looking for virus in tissue samples

The research group will be investigating the lingering presence of the virus or its proteins in the intestines and tonsils, and if so, whether it triggers the immune system or causes changes in the gut microbiome. 

Although the virus is undetectable in blood samples, it can be detected in tissue samples once its proteins have been dyed. 

"By comparing tissue samples from patients with long COVID with those from people who haven’t been affected by the disease, we hope to identify differences that can help us understand why some people develop long COVID while others don’t," says Dr Buggert.

The research project has received a two-year grant of USD 1.35 million from the USA’s PolyBio Research Foundation. 

"The grant is incredibly important for our COVID research," he continues. "Our dedicated and broad-based study will hopefully give us greater clarity and with it, the possibility of identifying appropriate therapies able, for instance, to kill or inhibit the virus."

Studying the worst affected 

The other research project to be awarded a grant concerns the genetic causes of long COVID. 

Pediatrician Petter Brodin.
Petter Brodin. Photo: Andreas Lundgren.

"Long COVID is a condition that is still underrated and under-diagnosed," says principal investigator Petter Brodin, professor of paediatric immunology at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Karolinska Institutet. "Our study will be focusing on the very sickest patients with confirmed organ damage. We hope to be able to identify genetic risk factors that explain why some people have a tendency to develop long COVID."

While the majority of the study’s cohort are women of reproductive age, there are no children with objective symptoms. To Professor Brodin, this is not a coincidence but the result of genetic differences in the immune system, which also operates differently at different stages of life. 

"Focusing on a clearly defined patient group in which the effects of the disease are objectively measurable will increase our chances of finding biological causes," he says. "This can open doors to more targeted treatments and help us understand the underlying pathological mechanisms."

Professor Brodin’s study involves genome mapping using DNA sequencing in a hundred or so individuals in order to compare genetic differences between those who have recovered from long COVID and those who still suffer symptoms. The study has received a two-year grant of USD 500,000. 

"Sequencing is expensive, but this grant will enable us to do the genetic analysis and the extensive follow-up that’s essential to this project," says Professor Brodin.

Global cooperation on long COVID

The LongCovid Research Consortium (LCRC), a PolyBio initiative, is a global scientific collaboration established to rapidly and transparently study long COVID and translate insights into therapeutic innovations and clinical trials. 

PolyBio Research Foundation is a non-profit organisation that conceptualises research projects to interrogate how infection-associated chronic conditions are studied, diagnosed and treated. 

The LCRC engages researchers and clinicians from dozens of institutions, laboratories and clinics, all sharing ideas and samples to bring its projects to fruition.