VGH and UBC research helping treat patients with COVID-19


Zee Rahiman is a 32 year old healthy male. In the past, he has always bounced back from flus and other sicknesses fairly quickly. But COVID-19 nearly took his life.

“When I was struck by the virus, within 24 hours I felt like I’d hit a brick wall,” says Zee. “Non-stop coughing, a fever spike… I was almost unresponsive – I could barely talk. It was terrifying.

Zee was rushed in an ambulance to the Emergency Department at VGH and was quickly admitted into the ICU. With every hour that passed, his condition continued to deteriorate. Eventually, his breathing grew so weak that he was placed on a ventilator.

“I remember that moment so vividly – I truly didn’t know if I was going to make it,” says Zee. “Luckily for me, the doctors and medical experts at VGH are equipped with the latest knowledge, tools and technology. And through a clinical study led by Dr. Myp Sekhon (pictured above) and Cheryl Wellington, they saved my life.”

Fighting COVID-19 with world-class bench-to-bedside research

A small team of researchers led by Dr. Sekhon, an intensive care physician at VGH and Dr. Wellington (left), a VCHRI researcher with the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at UBC, are retrieving and processing samples from critically ill COVID-19 patients at VGH and Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Using a machine known as a Simoa HD-1 analyzer in Dr. Wellington’s donor-funded research lab at UBC, blood samples that normally take weeks to analyze are processed within 24 hours so ICU physicians have more time to observe a patient’s immune system. The goal is to characterize the immune-system changes to provide optimal care for COVID-19 patients.

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“In some patients it appears that it may not be the virus itself, but the triggering of an excessive immune response that leads to lung damage,” says Dr. Sekhon. “If we can identify and quell it, patients may improve quickly.”

In Zee’s case, it was like flipping a switch; personalizing his care in the ICU was associated with a dramatic decrease in the elevated immune system markers in his blood.

“Bridging the gap from basic science to confirming bedside application is challenging but we have managed to do this in the midst of a pandemic by bringing together UBC scientists and the clinical teams,” says Dr. Sekhon.

“There is a bouquet of opportunities here with this very collaborative bench-to-bedside research,” says Dr. Wellington. “We want to take what we learn and help other patients.”

The research team is also planning to study the patients long-term, so they can better understand the immune-system response from having COVID-19, including lung and brain assessments.

“We want to keep this success story going and expand and grow this study to benefit people across Canada and internationally,” says Dr. Wellington. “In my whole career as a faculty member in 20 years, I’ve never seen clinical research move this quickly.”

Grateful for his life

Zee Rahiman (right) is incredibly grateful for the speed at which the research team was able to pivot their work and focus on COVID-19.

“Just because you’re young and healthy doesn’t mean you can’t get COVID-19,” says Zee. “To the research and clinical teams: Thank you for giving me a second chance.”

Learn how donor funding is enabling local clinician-scientists to accelerate research into COVID-19 treatments, testing and prevention.