Coronavirus: responding to the pandemic
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Our researchers are helping to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in various ways, from investigating treatments and examining how the virus affects the lungs, to helping the NHS prepare for incoming patients.
Celebrating life-changing COVID-19 research
Four leading scientists, whose ground-breaking COVID-19 research shaped national and international responses to the pandemic, were announced in November 2021 as winners of our 2021 Emerging Leaders Prize.
With financial support from Pfizer Limited, the Foundation’s 2021 prize awards a total of £400,000 to outstanding researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, King’s College London, the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford, who have all made a significant impact in the fight against COVID-19.
Scientists from across the world pivoted their research focus to help accelerate our understanding of COVID-19, its effects on the body, and how it can be diagnosed and treated. At record-breaking speed, medical research provided – and continues to provide - the answers to key questions about the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus, along with accurate testing methods, life-saving treatments, protective vaccinations, and policies to keep the most vulnerable safe.
Meet our winners and read the full story on our website.
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Identifying treatments for COVID-19
A range of potential treatments have been suggested for COVID-19, but it's still unclear whether any of them will turn out to be more effective than the usual standard of hospital care, which all patients will receive.
Our Emerging Leaders Prize-winner Dr Tihana Bicanic is Principal Investigator at St George’s University Hospital for a national trial testing some of the treatments suggested for COVID-19. The Oxford University-led RECOVERY trial has already enrolled over 5,000 patients across 160 hospital sites, randomising them to one of five different treatment arms. Since the trial opened at St. George’s on 30 March, the hospital has already recruited 50 COVID-19 patients.
Tihana said: “Drawing on my experience running clinical trials in severe fungal infection, I’m supporting our team of research nurses, consultants and study investigators, who are all working across a range of medical specialties. This includes identifying suitable patients, consenting them and randomising them to one of the treatment arms.
“The RECOVERY trial is specially designed so that promising treatments can be quickly introduced as soon as they’re identified, or removed if we find they’re not working.
“We’re hoping to rapidly find some answers to what may or may not work as treatment for COVID-19. With so many sites contributing, we can arrive at these answers at remarkable speed, which is exactly what’s needed in this fast-moving pandemic.”
Tihana is working closely on the trial with another of our fellows, Dr Elisabetta Groppelli, a Lecturer in Global Health at St. George's. Elisabetta's Foundation-funded project examines how the Hepatitis A virus hijacks and infects cells, to understand how infection spreads through the body.
However, since the COVID-19 outbreak began in January, Elisabetta has been contributing her expertise as a virologist to the pandemic response. She has also used her @ViralRNA Twitter account to communicate the latest scientific evidence for her followers, and translate insights from the situation in Italy, where she is originally from.
Read our interview with Elisabetta on the latest COVID-19 research and ‘the only weapon we have right now’ for fighting the pandemic: social distancing.
Forecasting COVID-19 cases to help the NHS
Ashleigh Myall, a PhD student on our National PhD Training Programme in AMR Research, is using mathematical modelling to help Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust forecast and prepare for incoming patients with COVID-19.
"As part of this group of mathematicians, epidemiologists, and doctors, I’ve been working to forecast one- and two-week pictures of what the likely scenarios will be for Imperial’s NHS Trust. Combining Imperial’s own COVID-19 patient numbers with data taken from published research on length of stays and mortality rates, we’re able to specifically forecast demand for beds. Now we’re also beginning to incorporate techniques aimed at picking up on the constantly changing number of cases - investigating the slow down as we reach the ‘peak’," said Ashleigh.
"It’s essential to tailor these forecasts to specific hospitals and bring in experts that understand both the mathematical models and the operational needs of each hospital, as the picture of COVID-19 across the UK can vary hugely. Working alongside the NHS in this pandemic has highlighted the need for interdisciplinary teams, linking experts key in the fight against infectious disease."
How does COVID-19 affect the lungs?
Funded by the Medical Research Foundation and Asthma UK, Dr Amanda Tatler from the University of Nottingham is developing a 'breathing' copy of a lung slice in the lab, which will help researchers understand how structural changes in the lungs of people with asthma can reduce lung function over time.
However, due to the closure of labs at the University of Nottingham for all but essential COVID-19 research, Amanda's Foundation-funded work has been temporarily put on hold. She's contributing her expertise in asthma research to the Nottingham Covid Research Group - a diverse team of researchers investigating lung disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Amanda said: "We're investigating how the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) enters lung epithelial cells to cause damage, and why some people develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) following infection. We know that many people suffer relatively mild, flu-like symptoms following infection but that a minority of patients develop pneumonia and ARDS, which can be fatal. Understanding why some people develop severe disease is vital for preventing ARDS or treating it once it has developed."
Find out more about Amanda's role in the Nottingham Covid Research Group.
Accelerating COVID-19 testing with robotics
Kevin Chau, a PhD student on our National PhD Training Programme in AMR Research, has contributed to the pandemic response as part of the Modernising Medical Microbiology team at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
"As part of the Modernising Medical Microbiology Covid-response team, I contributed to setting-up and running a liquid handling robotics lab to process thousands of blood samples for coronavirus antibody testing every day," said Kevin.
"Thanks to a massive joint effort, we converted a disused storeroom laboratory into a safe and fully operational robotics laboratory in just nine days - a task which would normally take months. Previous manual processing was slow and labour-intensive, which bottlenecked testing capacity, but the functional robotics laboratory has increased processing speed from hundreds of samples per day to thousands."
Read Kevin's blog post here.
Notes to editors
For further media information, contact our Communications team on 020 7250 8209 / 07892762074 or email Press.Team@medicalresearchfoundation.org.uk.
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