Autopsy theatre at the University Hospital Base

Lessons from the Deceased to the Living and Back

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many unanswered questions about how the virus that causes the disease would affect human tissues and organs. Through carrying out post-mortem examinations and investigating the effects of the virus on the tissues and organs of those who had experienced severe COVID-19, this consortium provided crucial information about the effects of the disease on the human body’s circulatory system, immune system and brain.

A Need for Pathology Research

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, very little was known about the effects of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on human organs and tissues or how it interacts with the immune system. This knowledge was critically important to the development and optimisation of therapeutic approaches. To address this deficit in understanding, this consortium examined the tissues and organs of deceased COVID-19 patients.

Uncovering Effects of COVID-19 on Humans’ Tissues and Organs

Initial research findings in 2020 were that the COVID-19 outcome in patients is driven to a large degree by the inflammation and clotting that occur in their blood vessels. This finding, which has now been supported by many studies carried out by other research groups, has been of value in designing more efficient treatment options for hospitalised COVID-19 patients.

The team subsequently examined the dysregulation of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2. They found that an imbalance between an individual’s innate immune response (the body’s first line of defence against pathogens) and their adaptive immune response (the immunity that develops as the body is exposed to pathogens or vaccines) may be one of the reasons why COVID-19 is linked to the dysfunction of multiple organs, has a high mortality rate, and causes mortality in a double waved pattern. The first wave occurs within seven days of infection, typically when multiple other background diseases are also present. In this case, the virus itself and the individual’s acute response to the virus plays a major role in death. The second wave occurs between 14 and 45 days after infection. For these patients, inflammatory responses and complications play a major role in death rather than the virus itself.

International Value and Recognition

The research efforts of this consortium and the results they produced have proven invaluable to understanding how the virus interacts and affects the human body and paving the way towards optimal treatment strategies of infected patients. The team received international recognition for their work, delivering numerous invited talks and appearing in multiple television and radio interviews. By the time their project ended, they had produced over 60 peer-reviewed articles, which had been cited by other researchers approximately 10,000 times. These numbers have continued to increase. Notably, in 2020, one member of the consortium, Dr Alexandar Tzankov, was awarded the Roger Cotton Prize for Histopathology, and in 2023, another member of the consortium, Dr Manina Etter, was awarded the prestigious research prize of the European Association of Neurosurgery. The latter award recognised the interest and scientific value of her research examining the neurological effects of COVID-19.

Banner image above: An autopsy theatre at the University Hospital Basel.

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Lead Researchers