Bay Area researchers probe how coronavirus attacks the heart

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Researchers at San Francisco's Gladstone Institutes are focusing in on a deadly, but as yet, little understood effect of COVID-19. It's the virus's potential, in extreme cases, to damage a patient's heart. And in a newly reviewed study, they point to the challenges that may lay ahead.

The threat appeared at the very beginning. Early last year a Santa Clara county woman became the first known coronavirus fatality in the U.S. The victim of a massive heart attack, apparently triggered by the virus, even though she otherwise appeared healthy.

"Even today, because she didn't have a cough, even when we knew about it, people would have sent her home essentially," says genetic disease researcher Dr. Bruce Conklin, M.D.

Now, Dr. Conklin and his colleagues at Gladstone are revealing more about the disturbing effects of COVID-19 on the human heart. Along with researchers Melanie Ott, M.D., Ph.D. and Todd McDevitt, Ph.D., the team was able to image that damage. They say the virus's prime target are long strands of muscle fiber that allow the heart to beat. In captured images some of those same muscle strands are essentially chopped into pieces.

RELATED: How to register for a COVID-19 vaccine in every Bay Area county

"We can certainly see there is the opportunity for this virus to wreak havoc," says McDevitt.

What they're trying to understand now is the process. Employing a technique pioneered at Gladstone, the team is able to use stem cells to create living beating heart cells, and then infect them with COVID-19.But while they've been able to observe the damage, the say getting the complete story could take time.
"We haven't seen the movie, we've seen snapshots of a process that's very dynamic. And putting that story together in an accurate way so we can actually understand it, you know, questions such as when would be the time to treat people," McDevitt adds.

And with more people being identified as so called long-haul COVID patients, finding answers becomes more urgent. Since the heart is typically not able to repair itself, researchers worry about effects from the damage showing up years in the future.

VIDEO: We asked 3 doctors if they'd go along with orange tier reopenings
EMBED More News Videos

Santa Clara, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties are in the orange tier. But just because something is allowed, is it safe? We asked three California doctors if they'd do some of the newly allowed activities.

"So for instance, if you were going to get heart disease at 90, and now you get it at 60 that makes a big difference," warns Dr. Conklin.

And it adds to the team's determination to unlock the hidden and damaging secrets of Covid-19, and a threat that emerged in the earliest days of the pandemic.

Again, the cases of severe heart damage were verified in a subset of patients who succumbed to the disease. Researchers at Gladstone are now hoping their cell research could also help identify potential treatments, as they learn more about how the damage happens.

VACCINE TRACKER: How California is doing, when you can get a coronavirus vaccine

Having trouble loading the tracker above? Click here to open it in a new window.

Copyright © 2021 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.