A team of Fort Lewis College students and their professor plan to get in on the ground floor of the emerging field of long COVID-19 research.
Five students and biology professor Shere Byrd will conduct a monthlong research project for their senior theses to study if vitamin D can help those with long COVID-19. Their goal is to decipher if vitamin D can offer an over-the-counter solution to one of the most pressing questions of the pandemic.
“There are some estimates (that) even in a place like Durango, where we have so much sunshine and people seem to try to eat pretty well, there’s still a significant amount of our population who really have marginal vitamin D concentrations in their body to begin with,” Byrd said. “Research is just coming out on long COVID-19 that vitamin D has significant effects on the immune system.”
Participants will take 1,000 international units of vitamin D or a placebo for 30 days. The dose is slightly higher than the Mayo Clinic’s recommend daily amount of 800 IU.
Before the trial, subjects will undergo cognitive testing, a six-minute exercise trial and blood testing performed by the students, who include a certified phlebotomist for the blood draw.
After the 30 days, participants will undergo the same tests so the students can study the effects of the vitamin D.
Students will measure the concentration of vitamin D in blood before and after the supplement regimen, as well as stress indicators the body releases in response to COVID-19. They will also analyze the impacts of long COVID-19 on long- and short-term memory and senses of taste and smell.
“There’s a lot of different factors in the immune system that can be stimulated by a novel virus like this,” said Jasmine Mayberry, a senior at FLC and one of the project members. “My research is looking at different cytokines, interferons, interleukins and inflammatory markers. I’m going to be looking at how they’re elevated in patients that have long COVID-19 and seeing if it matches up with their symptoms that they’re experiencing.”
Mayberry, an aspiring physician assistant, will analyze the blood samples and perform statistical analyses to determine the relationship between long COVID-19 and the body’s inflammatory response.
She will also study if the vitamin D treatment reduces the inflammation produced during the body’s response.
“(Vitamin D) can regulate inflammatory cytokine production, and it can help to inhibit proliferation of inflammatory cells,” she said.
Cytokines are proteins released by some cells to signal an immune response, and “cytokine storms,” in which the body responds with overwhelming inflammation that can lead to death, have been a feature of COVID-19.
The five students working with Byrd are conducting the study as a part of their senior theses. Students in the biology department do a two-semester capstone in which small groups work with professors to carry out research projects.
“Dr. Byrd already had in mind that she wanted to do something related to COVID-19, and a lot of us that are interested in going into medicine wanted to be in her research group,” Mayberry said. “Vitamin D seemed like something that we’d been seeing a lot of studies about and we wanted to research that a little bit further.”
Byrd, who studies the effects of stress on the immune system, jumped at the opportunity to work with students to explore vitamin D as a potential treatment.
“There is a little bit of evidence that vitamin D can help both acute and long COVID-19 patients, and my students wanted to do something new and novel,” Byrd said.
Vitamin D has been nothing less than controversial throughout the pandemic.
Some have touted the supplement as a promising preventive and treatment, while others have argued that it has little effect.
Studies in France and Spain concluded that those who take the supplement have less severe disease and lower risk of intensive care unit admission and death.
Other studies found no such link.
In a review article published in the journal Cell Biochemistry & Function, Italian researchers concluded that poor vitamin D increased the risk of infection, but played little role in the severity of the disease and mortality.
Another study published by a different team of Italian researchers in Nutrition found that hospitalized patients actually had a higher risk of dying if they took vitamin D supplements.
Little research has been done on long COVID-19 and vitamin D. A study by Irish researchers published in Nutrients found no link between poor vitamin D and long COVID-19.
But other research points to the supplement as a potential treatment.
A study by scientists in India published in Scientific Reports found that a high dose of vitamin D for eight to 10 days reduced inflammation and helped patients with long COVID-19.
“Right now, there’s so little work being done on long COVID-19,” Byrd said. “... We’re kind of getting in on the ground floor, which is pretty fun.”
The research by the FLC students will also fill a crucial gap.
“We do know that about 30% of people, regardless of the severity of COVID-19 that they suffer, have continuing symptoms beyond three months following their infection,” Byrd said. “And some of them are debilitating. If 30% of all patients in the U.S. end up with long COVID-19, then it’s going to be a lot of people who continue to have medical problems.”
The students and Byrd are in the initial stages of their trial.
The team is soliciting subjects in the hope that enough people join. Anyone one who has had continuing symptoms for longer than three months and who does not have significant underlying health conditions can participate.
Those interested in participating can reach Byrd at 247-7667 or email@example.com to find out more information.
“We’ll take anybody between the ages of 18 and death,” she said. “If they don’t have those underlying complications and they still have symptoms, we would love to have them participate.”
The before and after tests will take about 45 minutes and participants will receive a finger pulse oximeter, more vitamin D and other rewards for participating in the study.
“We’re hoping to get enough subjects to be able to tell an interesting story about whether vitamin D might be a good supplement for people to take if they’re having long COVID symptoms,” Byrd said. “It may work for some, it may work for everybody. We don’t know yet.”
If the study is successful, Byrd may build a bigger study with future senior thesis students.
For those like Mayberry, the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research and study treatments for long COVID-19 is a meaningful and rewarding one.
“I think it’s great that we have the chance to do this. It’s a really cool (opportunity) that we have at Fort Lewis to do research,” she said. “... And I think as COVID-19 continues, we definitely need to learn everything that we can about it and make sure that we are able to treat it as well as prevent it.”