Newswise — CHICAGO — For three decades, DePaul University psychologist Leonard A. Jason has studied how common viruses can trigger a debilitating illness: myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). When cases of long COVID emerged in the early days of the pandemic, Jason’s expertise became a touchstone.
Now the National Institutes of Health has awarded Jason $842,000 to further his research on ME/CFS with Lurie Children’s Hospital, bringing a focus on long COVID into the longitudinal study. Jason is also editor of a book on long COVID set to be released this spring. With both projects, Jason seeks to catalyze global knowledge about virally induced chronic illness and push forward discovery.
“There are a lot of similarities between ME/CFS and long COVID,” Jason said. “What’s unique to our NIH-funded research in Chicago is we have been following individuals over time. By examining blood samples and other signatures, we may be able to predict who will recover from these viruses and who is at risk for prolonged illness.”
The need for new insight into long COVID is pressing: the CDC estimates 1 in 13 adults in the U.S. is suffering from the illness.
NIH support bolsters ongoing research
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke awarded the grant late last year to bolster Jason’s ongoing research with Dr. Ben Z. Katz, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital. Their initial study enrolled 4,500 college students to examine why ME/CFS appears in some individuals infected with Epstein-Barr virus, most commonly known for causing infectious mononucleosis. Some 50 of those patients have gone on to develop ME/CFS.
Since the outset of COVID-19, Jason and Katz have widened their efforts to explore why long COVID appears in college students who contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The new funding will help researchers reach back into this pool of participants and gather long COVID data.
“Having data on these viruses becomes incredibly valuable to this work. College students have generally developed fewer comorbid conditions, which gives us a clearer look at the pathophysiology of what’s causing chronic illness,” Jason said. Another integral member of the team is Jacob Furst, professor in DePaul’s School of Computing, who is analyzing the data.
Initial results have shown some patients who develop ME/CFS or long COVID have differences in their immune systems. Jason and Katz are tracking cytokines—inflammatory proteins—as well as other biological markers including digestive health.
Book and advocacy drive discovery
As the world grapples with measuring and treating long COVID, Jason’s new book brings together the research from 15 international experts. He contributes a chapter with insight on the history of diagnosing and classifying the illness.
Over the years, Jason has championed systematic approaches to diagnosing and treating ME/CFS. He developed the DePaul Symptom Questionnaire, which has become a gold standard for diagnosing ME/CFS. “We have over 30 years of research on ME/CFS, and the contributors to the book bring a wealth of knowledge from their disciplines,” Jason said. “It’s important to include the right questions and comparison groups in large studies on COVID-19.”
Other researchers contributed chapters focused on COVID-19’s impact on the brain, circulatory system, lungs and more. “Understanding the Behavioral and Medical Impact of Long COVID” is slated to be published by Routledge in April.
Jason sees the book and his ongoing research as being a strong foundation for discovery as well as advocacy for patients. He is a vocal advocate and serves on the diagnostics committee of the NIH’s RECOVER initiative, which is studying more than 17,000 people to learn about the long-term effects of COVID-19. Recently, Jason won NIH’s support to include an ME/CFS group as part of the work.
“For many people, COVID is very much present in their lives,” Jason said. “We have come a long way with ME/CFS research, and I’m hopeful that these other projects will coalesce into discovery to help people suffering from long COVID.”
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