A STRABANE native is leading a team of scientists in Dublin which has made a major breakthrough in identifying how Covid-19 affects people.
Professor James O’Donnell is the director of the Irish Centre for Vascular Biology with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and is consultant haematologist in the National Coagulation Centre in St James’s Hospital in Dublin.
His team recently published a paper detailing findings of their research which found that abnormal blood clotting occurs in Irish patients with severe Covid-19 infection, causing micro-clots within the lungs. They also found that patients with higher levels of blood clotting activity had a significantly worse prognosis and were more likely to require ICU admission.
“In addition to pneumonia affecting the small air sacs within the lungs, we are also finding hundreds of small blood clots throughout the lungs. This scenario is not seen with other types of lung infection, and explains why blood oxygen levels fall dramatically in severe Covid-19 infection,” Prof O’Donnell explained.
“Understanding how these micro-clots are being formed within the lung is critical so that we can develop more effective treatments for our patients, particularly those in high-risk groups.”
Emerging evidence also shows that the abnormal blood-clotting problem in Covid-19 results in a significantly increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Prof O’Donnell explained “Covid-19 does not act like a regular virus. In viruses like Ebola or Dengue the patient normally bleeds out, but the opposite is happening with Covid patients.
“We know that some people get Covid-19 and are totally well, while others get it and are very seriously ill – but we don’t know why if affects different people in different ways.
“I first got involved as one of my patients had Covid and then began looking at other post mortem studies that have been carried out on Covid patients around the world and we started to identify that there is a predisposition to blood clotting.
“We have also identified other trends which indicate different races and ethnic groups react to this illness differently.
“For example we know that Chinese people are three-to-four times less likely to develop thrombosis than Caucasians, but that African/Americans are at a higher risk of thrombosis. We also know that people who are blood group O are less likely to die from Covid-19.
“We have seen that of all the health care professionals who have died in the UK 95 per-cent of them have been non-Caucasian.
“So we are searching for signals and then we can see how we can use these to guide us when treating high risk patients.”
And such is the speed of research into Covid-19 that Prof O’Donnell’s findings are already having an impact on hospital wards.
He explained, “Any patient in an intensive care ward setting will be treated with blood thinning drugs to stop them developing harmful clots such as deep vein thrombosis. Even then we know that patients with severe pneumonia can still experience blood clots, and this rises to 50 per-cent with Covid patients.
“So already we are starting to give Covid patients a higher dose of blood thinning drugs in order to prevent this. Of course this has to be monitored but it seems to be having an effect.”
Dealing with such a new virus presents its own challenges as Prof O’Donnell explains “We are really trying to do this in the dark as we don’t know very much about the virus and we are finding out new things every day.
“So it can be quite disconcerting looking after patients in these conditions. We published this paper two weeks ago and already there are things I could change in it.”
The Strabane man’s team has also recently benefited from a major government investment of €200,000 to allow them to continue to carry out their research and to move their findings forward as soon as possible. As with all researching into Covid-19 the findings will be shared with scientists across the world to help defeat the deadly virus.
Admitting that he was in two-minds about whether to get involved with the research as he was already very busy Prof O’Donnell explains, “In the end I just felt it was the right thing to do, to try and make a contribution and hopefully help bring an end to this.”
Also working on the front-line in St James’s Hospital Prof O’Donnell knows first-hand how coronavirus has affected the country.
He explains, “Our hospitals reacted very quickly to this so we have been able to cope. We were expecting a tsunami but so far we have never reached the stage where we have been overwhelmed in the same way as other countries.
Hopefully as the lockdown is relaxed that situation will not change.”
A native of Five Acres in Strabane James is a son of the Marguerite O’Donnell who worked as a teacher in St Mary’s PS, his sisters Deirdre and Eilis both still live locally. James went to St Mary’s PS, Melmount before moving on to the Christian Brothers in Omagh.
He also maintains close contact with Fr Michael Doherty in Melmount who was his school chaplain in the CBS. The pair have remained close friends for more than 40 years and Prof O’Donnell still turns to him for advice and guidance.
And making it a really family affair in medicine, Prof O’Donnell’s wife also works as an oncologist in St James’s, and his son who only graduated last week is likely to secure a post in the same hospital in the coming days.