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Study launches into inhaled gas to support long-COVID scans

A study has launched into whether inhaling a gas to enhance scans can help researchers understand the long-term effects of COVID-19.

The NIHR-supported EXPLAIN study will investigate whether a device which enhances magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the lungs can identify lung damage in long COVID patients.

The device transforms the inactive gas xenon into a new, hyperpolarised state which is inhaled by patients to fill the lung space normally occupied by air in a single 10-second breath hold.

The gas enhances the MRI signal and can detect changes in the lung that impact its ability to handle the exchange of gases during breathing and underlying damage that is not detectable by traditional imaging, such as CT scans.

Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (OUH) and medical imaging technology company Polarean Imaging plc will collaborate to study the long-term effects of COVID-19.

Long COVID is an umbrella term used to describe ongoing symptoms four weeks after COVID-19 infection. Breathlessness is one of the most common symptoms, persisting for months after infection.

The mechanisms driving breathlessness remain unclear and this may be hindering the development of effective treatments. New diagnostic mechanisms are therefore crucial to advance patient care.

It is hoped this will allow researchers to better characterise long COVID and improve patient care.

The EXPLAIN study is investigating possible lung damage in long COVID patients who have not been hospitalised with COVID-19 but continue to experience breathlessness.

About 400 participants will be recruited, including patients with and without long COVID, at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital.

The study follows findings of an initial study involving 36 long COVID patients experiencing breathlessness which identified lung abnormalities.

Prof Fergus Gleeson, Professor of Radiology at the University of Oxford and Consultant Radiologist at OUH, said: "We are pleased to be working with Polarean, now having access to their most advanced hyperpolarised xenon equipment. With this new system, we will be able to image more patients more efficiently to see if we can uncover the underlying causes driving long COVID as part of our EXPLAIN study."

Read more on the OUH website.