Emergency innovations
Dr. Azad Mashari
Dr. Azad Mashari demonstrates the prototype split ventilator that he and more than 100 others built in two and a half weeks in the early days of the pandemic.

When COVID-19 struck, the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre developed life-saving technologies and conducted game-changing research.

The Peter Munk Cardiac Centre is known for its ingenuity and world-leading research. The COVID-19 pandemic has put this reputation to the test and highlighted the Centre's leadership in the field. The need to pivot instantaneously has been unprecedented, but if there's any group that can rise to the challenge, it's the team at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. Physicians, nurses, allied health providers, technicians – everyone has come together to solve problems they could have never imagined. What they have been learning since those early days of the pandemic will help shape the future of care far beyond it.

Questioning the root cause of COVID-19

In the spring of 2020, Dr. Kathryn Howe, a vascular surgeon and scientist in the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at UHN's Sprott Department of Surgery, wanted to figure out what caused this disease to affect an individual's heart. COVID-19 was known as a respiratory disease, but was there more to it? Dr. Howe was trying to make sense of early reports from vascular surgery colleagues in the United States of unusual blood clots in the veins and arteries of patients with COVID-19. "I started bringing that to the team in the lab and saying, 'look, we've got to talk about this,'" she recalls.

Dr. Howe and her mentor, scientist Dr. Jason Fish, collaborated to write a review paper suggesting the endothelium, cells that line every blood vessel in the body, might be the linchpin in patients infected with the novel coronavirus. They realized the special protein that exists on COVID-19 is what might allow it to bind to the endothelium and potentially put those cells at risk. Many of the complications we're now familiar with, such as COVID toes (the dark spots on toes caused by small blood clots), as well as peculiar strokes in otherwise healthy people and neurological effects like loss of smell or taste, relate to the vascular system. "These cells line every single system," Dr. Howe says. "There's almost no place where they are not being impacted by the virus."