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COVID-19 Research Response: graduate student investigates oxygen transport by red blood cells

29 July 2020

The focus of Kyung Chan (KC) Park’s research changed significantly earlier this year when his research group was awarded a grant from the University’s Research Response Fund and he volunteered to take part in important work to support the treatment of COVID-19 patients. KC tells us more about this below, following the recent publication of the first results of this project in a paper for the British Journal of Haematology.

What does your research usually focus on, and how has this changed in response to the pandemic outbreak?

I’m a final year DPhil student funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in the Proton Transport Laboratory headed by Associate Professor Pawel Swietach, at the Department of Physiology, Anatomy & Genetics (DPAG). I am training as a physiologist with an interest in how metabolites can affect heart function. Specifically, I am researching how propionate, a short-chain fatty acid that occurs naturally in the body, can cause heart disease. In healthy individuals, the concentration of propionate is low, so unlikely to have an effect. However, in metabolic diseases, propionate can accumulate to significant levels. The biggest build-up of propionate occurs in patients with propionic acidaemia, an inherited metabolic disease affecting children, and uniquely these patients often die due to heart disease. My research applies a wide range of research methods (physiology, biochemistry, genetics) in order to identify the underlying mechanisms that propionate causes heart dysfunction.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Research Response Fund was established within the University to undertake essential research on COVID-19. When our laboratory was awarded a grant from this Fund, I volunteered to pause my DPhil project for four months in order to carry out this work.

What area have you been working on, and what have your findings been so far?

A research interest of our Laboratory is how the shape or size of red blood cells (RBCs) can influence their capacity to carry and exchange gases. In COVID-19 patients, it was unclear why some patients were hypoxaemic (low oxygen in blood) yet paradoxically would not respond to oxygen therapy. Some claims were made in the research community that this may have been attributable to a defect of oxygen handling by RBCs, although this was never directly measured. To address this need, we applied a novel method recently developed in our laboratory to measure oxygen handling in individual RBCs, obtained from patients at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

Despite the earlier hypotheses implicating a defect in RBCs, the first results of our study showed that oxygen transport by RBCs from coronavirus-infected patients were no different to cells from healthy volunteers. This is an important result because it helps narrow down the cause of hypoxaemia and guide management of oxygen status in critically ill COVID patients.

You can find out more about the first results of our lab’s work, which have been published in the British Journal of Haematology in a news article on the DPAG website.

What will be your next steps with this research and your own DPhil work?

We are currently investigating other physiological parameters that could affect oxygen status in COVID patients and the study is ongoing.

Looking ahead in terms of my doctorate, unfortunately like many other laboratory scientists my project was severely disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m looking at a minimum of around a three-month delay. Thankfully, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) are generously offering studentship extensions (read the BHF press release about ‘Protecting our research leaders of tomorrow’ here) to mitigate such unfortunate delays. The BHF are the largest charity supporting cardiovascular research in the UK, but with the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing of their shops, their research funds had reduced by a staggering ~50%. We’re grateful to the BHF for supporting us during this crisis and I would urge members of the College to kindly support the BHF where they can.

Further Information

Image: Single-cell oxygen saturation fluorescence imaging to study oxygen handling by red blood cells