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Small new study shows one reason why some kids may have worse COVID symptoms than others

A new study from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is giving doctors another clue into this critical puzzle

ATLANTA — It's been a frustration throughout the pandemic. The inability to be able to answer why some people get life-threatening cases of Covid-19 while others only develop mild symptoms. 

Yet, a new study from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is now offering doctors another clue in this critical puzzle. 

The pediatric neurotrauma team at Children's collaborated with infectious disease experts in regards to an interesting discovery: while reviewing blood samples of kids admitted to the hospital with Covid-19, experts observed levels of plasma osteopontin, an inflammatory biomarker they use to follow traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and concussions, was significantly higher in kids with moderate and severe Covid-19, compared to kids who were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.

"The kids came in and they were categorized as either being mild, moderate, or severe,"  Dr. Andrew Reisner, Medical Director of Neurotrauma and Pediatric Neurosurgeon at Children’s, explained. "Sure enough, surprisingly there was a very strong correlation between this marker and the severity of Covid." 

Dr. Reisner called the results "exciting" though cautioned the study, recently published in Experimental Biology and Medicine, was small with fewer than 30 patients, and thus, preliminary results need to be further validated by a larger clinical trial. But Dr. Reisner said the biomarker could one day help doctors predict how sick a patient could get from the virus. 

“The osteopontin levels may potentially tell us the severity levels of COVID-19, maybe even before a patient deteriorates to the point that hospitalization and ventilator support is needed,” said Dr. Reisner. “We are hopeful that verification from follow-up clinical trials will lead us there.” 

He said the team at Children's is already in touch with other children's hospitals to see how they can advance this research. 

"It's just another arrow in your quiver to fight this disease or to allow us to better manage this dreadful disease," he explained. "That said, the take-home message for everyone is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

While Dr. Reisner said there's good reason to believe what they're learning from this biomarker and its possible connection to severe Covid could apply to other age groups as well, he reiterated the vaccine remains the best protection against the virus.

In addition to Dr. Reisner, who serves as the Elaine and John C. Carlos Chair for Neurotrauma at Emory University School of Medicine, the multi-disciplinary team from Children’s and Emory, included Laura Blackwell, Ph.D., Stacy Heilman, Ph.D., Iqbal Sayeed with the Pediatric Neurotrauma Lab, and infectious diseases physicians Evan Anderson, MD, Andi Shane, MD, and Christina Rostad, MD.