Massive Atlantic Canada chronic disease study turns sights on COVID-19

·2 min read
There turned out to be a surprising connection between toenail clippings and COVID-19 research. (CBC - image credit)
There turned out to be a surprising connection between toenail clippings and COVID-19 research. (CBC - image credit)

The Atlantic Path study, which collected toenails of tens of thousands of Atlantic Canadians to study chronic disease across the population, has turned its gaze on COVID-19.

The study launched in 2009, and toenails were just a small part of it. The toenail clippings, donated from 30,000 Atlantic Canadians, were used to detect levels of heavy metals in participants. The participants also fill out extensive health questionnaires. The presence of heavy metals can then be correlated to overall health.

Atlantic Path is a branch of a pan-Canadian study known as Can Path.

Jason Hicks, executive director of Atlantic Path, said the study has provided data for a wide variety of research projects, ranging from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and prostate cancer.

Beyond radon detectors

A recent study provided some participants with radon detectors for their basements.

The researchers want to know if they can detect a connection between basement radon levels and what was found in toenails.

"Ideally there could be like a blood test that would tell you whether you're being exposed to radon," said Hicks.

"All that we have currently is knowing whether there's high levels in the basement or not. So this would be a significant advancement in quantifying individual risk and for developing lung cancer from radon exposure."

Treasure trove of data

But most recently, scientists have become interested in using the Atlantic Path database to learn more about COVID-19.

"A year ago today I would have never believed that we could get into infectious disease research," said Hicks.

But while it was never considered at the time the information was being put together, the baseline health information Path created became enormously valuable in a pandemic. A new health questionnaire was created to gather more specific information, and Hicks was thrilled by the response.

"There's over 100,000 questionnaires that have been collected from Canadians," he said.

"They're available to researchers who have projects approved by an ethics research board for free access. And they can be part of that wealth of information that's emerging about COVID-19."

Path is a 30-year project. It may bring more surprises yet.

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