Irene Sarosiek, M.D., Richard McCallum, M.D. and Jerzy Sarosiek M.D. | Photos courtesy TTUHSC El Paso

TTUHSC El Paso awarded NIH Funds to explore effects of COVID-19 on stomach, GI tract

Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso is one of six research centers tasked by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how COVID-19 may have long-term effects on the stomach and other regions of the GI tract.

The goal is to determine if COVID-19 affects the stomach of patients who already have impaired stomach functions, specifically by a condition called gastroparesis. As a result, patients who report gastrointestinal symptoms, including stomach issues, will be screened for any COVID-19 history. Overall, the NIH has awarded $352,133 to this timely project, with $26,262 for TTUHSC El Paso.

Richard McCallum, M.D., professor and director of the TTUHSC El Paso Center for Neurogastroenterology and GI Motility, and Irene Sarosiek, M.D., professor and director of GI motility and neurostimulation research, will collaborate with the other research centers across the country on this project, led by Temple University in Philadelphia.

“COVID-19 affects the gut because it’s in the gastrointestinal tract for more than two or three weeks in infected patients. It’s actually there longer than it is in the lungs. So, it makes sense that there could be some people who don’t fully recover from their infection,” Dr. McCallum said. “Down the road, this pandemic could leave a number of people with upset GI tracts and with impaired functions including gastroparesis (GP), so we want to be proactive in studying these potential health outcomes to understand how to better diagnose and treat patients. A year or two from now, there could be a number of people who have developed trouble with nausea and vomiting because this virus damaged their stomachs, specifically the nerves controlling how the stomach empties food.”

Dr. McCallum and the team have developed a strong partnership with the NIH over the last 12 years, which has helped raise the level of health care in El Paso, a historically underserved area. TTUHSC El Paso’s collaboration with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and NIH is important because of the number of Hispanic patients that can be recruited to studies, due to the university’s unique location in the Borderland, Dr. Sarosiek said. Generally, Hispanic patient populations have been understudied and underrepresented or left out of national health research, he said.

“We now have a database of approximately 300 patients with gastroparesis. When they come back for appointments, we’ll ask more questions, such as: How did they feel before and after COVID-19? Which symptoms did they have? How were they treated? Did they require an emergency room visit and/or hospitalization? Were any other family members affected by the COVID-19 virus?” said Dr. Sarosiek.

Additionally, nasal/oral swabs, saliva and blood samples will be obtained from patients and people from the same household who were exposed to COVID-19. Samples from all seven centers will be analyzed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, using sophisticated laboratory methods.

While the group works to document the effects of COVID-19, their long-term goal is to cure or prevent gastroparesis one day, which Dr. McCallum said is an attainable accomplishment. One scientific connection between gastroparesis and COVID-19 infection is diabetes, which is recognized as one of the early contributing factors of gastroparesis, and an important coexisting condition affecting and predicting the outcome of post-viral injury caused by an infection such as COVID-19.

“There’s a higher instance of Type 2 diabetes in Hispanic patients along the border, including El Paso,” Dr. McCallum said. “The bigger goal is to help educate El Pasoans about diabetes and the GI tract. We’re trying to eventually prevent diabetes from damaging the stomach. Fortunately, if it’s already damaged, we have effective treatment options available”.

“Obviously, we’re very happy and grateful for cooperation, not only on our campus but also on a national level. This illustrates the competence and dedication of the TTUHSC El Paso team in bringing further knowledge and understanding of developments that lead to GI changes due to COVID-19,” Dr. Sarosiek said.

In addition to Temple University, other universities involved with the COVID-19 project include Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston; Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; University of Louisville in Kentucky; and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and Jacksonville, Florida.

Including the funding for COVID-19 research, TTUHSC El Paso’s Division of Gastroenterology received three grants from the NIH worth $556,547 for gastroenterological research in 2020. The studies focus on gastroparesis, a serious digestive disorder that prevents or delays the stomach from emptying food.