Researchers at the University of Bristol and University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust are taking part in a national study which aims to uncover why some COVID-19 patients in hospital have heart muscle damage, and how this can be diagnosed more easily.

Blood tests show signs of heart muscle injury in up to one in five patients hospitalised by COVID-19. This is associated with poorer outcomes for patients.

Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the heart, researchers are investigating how often, and in what way, the heart becomes damaged, and how it recovers six months later. They are looking at how this damage and recovery is affected by age, sex, ethnicity, and medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and narrowing of blood vessels, as these are also known to result in poorer outcomes for patients with COVID-19.

They also want to see if they can improve the diagnosis of viral heart damage from a simple electrocardiogram (ECG) that can be used to check the heart’s rhythm and electrical activity. This procedure could save patients from having invasive heart tests which can be uncomfortable, are expensive and carry a small risk of serious complications.

COVID Heart study co-investigator Dr Chiara Bucciarelli-Ducci is Consultant Senior Lecturer in Cardiology at the University of Bristol and Consultant Cardiologist for the Bristol Heart Institute at University Hospitals Bristol & Weston NHS Foundation Trust. She leads the Cardiac MRI Unit of the NIHR Bristol Biomedical Research Centre. She said:

“As the pandemic unfolds, research is establishing how demographics, genetics and certain medical conditions – including heart conditions – can be risk factors for mortality.

“Whilst blood tests show that up to one in five of hospitalised COVID-19 patients may have cardiac injury, these results could be due to a number of different conditions. As a cardiovascular MRI can make a specific diagnosis, it will help us to answer some of the clinical questions we have about COVID-19 and heart damage, while also helping to improve care for patients during their illness and as they recover.”

The 12-month COVID Heart study, led by the University of Leeds, forms one of six flagship research programmes funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which aim to improve care for people with heart and circulatory disease suffering from COVID-19. Find out more about all six NIHR-BHF Flagship Research Programmes.