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Vancouver-based study to help quickly diagnose patients most at risk of dying from COVID-19

Last Updated Jul 12, 2020 at 12:36 pm PDT

Bob Hancock - 1 (Courtesy Tamea Burd Photography)

Researchers based in Vancouver are working to save the lives of critical care patients with COVID-19

The goal is to quickly diagnose people more likely to develop severe sepsis

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — It’s not a cure, but hope for life-saving treatment.

That’s what a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia is working on to help critical care patients during the pandemic.

The goal is to quickly diagnose people more likely to develop severe sepsis.

Lead researcher Dr. Bob Hancock says that condition –which can lead to multiple organ failure– has already been identified as a major reason why people are dying.

“Sepsis actually kills nearly 20 per cent of all people on the planet.  It’s 11-million deaths every year and it seems to be triggered especially by COVID.”

He’s the co-founder of Sepset Biosciences Inc which just received funding from the federal government to conduct a study.

Hancock says his team of about a dozen people in BC, Quebec and Ontario will test hundreds of samples and preliminary results could be available within three months.

“Can we diagnose really early on and can we suggest new strategies for treating patients that might be more successful if you understand the disease better … Everybody’s feeling massive disruption with COVID-19, so anything that can bring us to a situation where we are able to resume a relatively normal life would be fantastic.”

He tells NEWS 1130 this project, which was approved by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, will use sequencing to identify people vulnerable to sepsis.

“Can we actually predict which patients are more likely to have severe disease? That will make a major impact on not just treatment, but the way you divide resources in a hospital –enable a physician to have better tools to predict the course of disease, figure out what sorts of treatments, might or might not work, and in the long run, I guess save lives.”

Hancock adds his team will use next-generation RNA sequencing technology to examine the complete gene expression profiles of severely ill patients.

“We’ve basically now confirmed that we can diagnose whether a patient’s going on to severe sepsis and have the potential for organ failure and we’re now just working out the commercialization of that technology, so it’s much faster to do diagnostics than it is to do therapeutics, so we’re very hopeful that within the next year and a bit we can get our technology going, but in a sense, COVID-19 provides us an opportunity to even fast-track over and above that because the movement of diagnostics in the COVID area is just bewilderingly rapid because of the great need.”

He explains Sepset Biosciences is already developing a point-of-care blood test for hospitals to identify septic patients in the emergency room, as well as predict those who will have high risk for organ failure.

“One of the problems with sepsis is it’s kind of considered the graveyard of medical therapeutic development.  The reason being there have been more than 30 clinical trials that have not worked out at all and it’s thought that it’s so complex, that’s why you can’t deal with it.  We’ve already studied 300 people from all around the world on sepsis –generally– and found that you can actually bin people with sepsis into five different sets of patients that have different underlying mechanisms. And so, rather than one disease, it’s like you have five different diseases.”

Hancock says other recent studies have shown people who’ve died from COVID-19 have suffered damage not only to their lungs, but their liver,  kidneys and heart.