Stephen Martin

Project Leader Stephen Martin, Ph.D.
CAIRHE Translational Biomarkers Core
[email protected] 

SARS-CoV-2 is a novel coronavirus responsible for the human disease COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 disproportionately affects people over age 65, with this population having a higher infection incidence and increased disease severity and mortality compared to younger age groups. The number of older adults infected by SARS-CoV-2 throughout Montana is unknown because only a small proportion of individuals, those with symptomatic infections, are currently tested for viral infection. As such, there are likely many asymptomatic cases that escape detection and diagnosis. Furthermore, a large percentage of the older population lives in rural counties that experience significant health disparities, including limited access to COVID-19 testing. Because a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is unlikely in the short-term and vaccine efficacy is lower in older adults, a significant number of older people will likely continue to contract SARS-CoV-2 infections for the foreseeable future.

In addition to its role in acute infection response, inflammation is a critical factor that contributes to numerous aging-related pathological processes (e.g., cardiovascular/neurodegenerative diseases). This pilot study hypothesizes that immune activation by SARS-CoV-2 infection exacerbates aging-related inflammation, leading to a heightened chronic inflammatory state that increases future disease vulnerability in older adults. Therefore, there is an urgent need to identify older individuals who have been infected by SARS-CoV-2 and determine, based on their inflammatory status, whether they may be at greater risk for age-related diseases. The objectives for this study are to identify the sociodemographic characteristics of older adults infected by SARS-CoV-2 throughout Montana and establish the impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection on age-related chronic inflammation. The study will pursue the following two aims:

  • Aim 1. Identify sociodemographic characteristics of SARs-CoV-2 infection in adults ≥ 65 years of age throughout Montana. Dr. Martin will conduct serological testing and survey data collection in micropolitan and rural Montana to identify individuals ≥ 65 years previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 and will examine associations between infection status, sociodemographic characteristics, and physical/mental health. 
  • Aim 2. Define the relationship between SARS-CoV-2 infection and long-term systemic inflammation in adults ≥ 65 years of age throughout Montana. Using a cross-sectional study design, Dr. Martin will measure circulating inflammatory markers and perform transcriptional profiling of immune cells in adults ≥ 65 years who test positive or negative for previous SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Identified mechanisms regulating inflammation will inform the development of clinical approaches to attenuate SARS-CoV-2–related long-term comorbidities in this vulnerable population.