Bristol announces the first of many new research projects to tackle COVID-19

The 25 research projects are the first to be announced from the recent Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Rapid Response Funding Call (COVID-19) . Additional projects, from the rolling funding call, will be announced by the Institute in the coming weeks, demonstrating the University’s ability to expand its research to address this vital area.

The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute-funded research projects include:

Advancing PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2
A project to help increase the UK’s testing capacity is being led by Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics at Bristol, Director of the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre at Bristol Medical School and lead of Bristol UNCOVER (Bristol COVID Emergency Research), a group of Bristol researchers united to collaborate on finding ways to overcome the disease.

Professor Finn’s lab is establishing quantitative real time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests which enable scientists to look for the genetic sequences specific to the virus and show if someone is infected at the time of testing. Currently used by Public Health England (PHE) to test patients and NHS staff, the team will use PCRs to validate other tests and kits to check they are reliable enough so that capacity could be scaled-up. The team also plan to analyse swab samples taken as part of other research studies during recent weeks to chart the early stages of the epidemic.

Professor Finn said: "This project will undertake some of the testing research and development activities needed by PHE but which they do not currently have the capacity to take forward. Our aim in the coming weeks is to set up studies in patients and healthcare workers in Bristol to understand the natural history of the infection. This will provide us with accurate information on the relationships between symptoms, the presence of the virus and the development of antibodies in the blood."

COVID-19 rapid vaccine development
Creating vaccines to target new diseases is a marathon run that can take years but Professor Imre Berger, Director of the Max Planck-Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology alongside scientists from Bristol biotech Imophoron are using ADDomer , their innovative rapid response synthetic virus-like particle (VLP) platform to develop new COVID-19 candidate vaccines. By inserting harmless bits of the viral surface proteins into the VLP platform the team rapidly generated SARS-CoV-2 virus-like mimics. These ADDomer -COVID19 candidate vaccines exploit the virus’s ’Achilles Heel’ epitope - critical for reducing the virus’s infectivity.

Professor Berger said: "Our aim is to perform animal immunisation and virus neutralisation experiments, then move towards a bona fide vaccine and into trials as soon as possible."

COVID-19 and population health
Estimating the prevalence of the ’hidden iceberg’ of asymptomatic people who are potentially spreading the virus without realising will enable the government to better manage the epidemic going forward. Understanding this, along with the wider social, economic and health impacts of mitigation strategies such as the lockdown will be aided by a new Children of the 90s (CO90s) study.

Scientists from Bristol Medical School, led by Professor Nicholas Timpson, Principal investigator of CO90s, will be asking 26,000 participants of the CO90s cohort to complete a questionnaire to reveal how many of the predominantly healthy, young participants experienced COVID-19 like symptoms in the past six months. The questionnaire-based data collection will help the government understand the prevalence of the disease - and estimate the size of the hidden iceberg - and to plan how best to tackle it.

Professor Timpson said: "We find ourselves in unprecedented times and facing a population health challenge of shocking proportion. Here at Children of the 90s, we are uniquely placed to collect data on early cases and to make very important estimates of the true frequency of infections. Not only this, with the deep collection of data and samples we have from over 30-years of study, we can use our expertise to investigate the factors which relate to susceptibility to infection and on the severity of the condition when it arises."

Supporting people with diabetes
For people with diabetes, the government’s social distancing measures means that diabetes education, routine check-up appointments, and peer-support groups have been cancelled. In addition, several people will be asked to stay at home and avoid all contact for 12 weeks.

A UK-wide online survey to identify how to best support people with diabetes in the current situation is being led by Dr Sarah Sauchelli Toran at NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (BRC - Nutrition) in collaboration with Diabetes UK. The team also plan to help two diabetes peersupport groups digitalise their meetings. If found to be beneficial for wellbeing and diabetes management, the framework will be distributed to the over 300 diabetes groups around the country.

Rachael Gooberman Hill , Director of Bristol’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, said: "The COVID-19 pandemic marks an unprecedented time in our history, it’s affecting all of us and we need research to help to find the way forward. Many of Bristol’s staff and students are already committing their time and energy by supporting the NHS and government. Colleagues across the University are contributing their expertise, laboratories and equipment and are responding to needs in our communities and volunteering their time.

"These projects, many of which are brand new areas of research, are part of Bristol’s collective effort to mobilise our scientific expertise to deliver rapid and wide-reaching impact to help protect and care for people. The projects come from diverse research areas, including laboratory sciences, epidemiology and social sciences. All of these approaches can make important contributions to the COVID-19 problem.

"We had an overwhelming response to our rapid funding call from our researchers. Because of this we will continue with the funding call, which remains open to University staff. We plan to announce additional research projects in the coming weeks."

Professor John Iredale , Pro Vice-Chancellor for Health at the University of Bristol, added: "We are in the midst of a global health crisis and experiencing a once in a lifetime situation. It is clear that now, more than ever, the expertise of our scientists will help inform the UK’s and international efforts in fighting the disease through expanding our knowledge of the Sars-Cov-2 virus and COVID-19.

"I am immensely proud of Bristol’s research community who, despite these difficult times, have united to pursue vital COVID-19 research that will deliver wide-reaching impact with the ultimate aim of limiting the spread of the disease and saving lives."

Other funded projects include:

  • Dr Andrew Davidson: Imaging platform for rapid antiviral and neutralising antibody assays against SARS-CoV-2;
  • Dr David Matthews: Nanodrop spectrophotometer for quality checking extracted RNA prior to sequencing;
  • Professor Bruce Hood: Remote nudging as a way to support mental well-being during social isolation;
  • Dr Ellen Brooks-Pollock: Healthcare seeking behaviour and contact patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic: informing predictive modelling;
  • Dr Laura Rivino: Hyperinflammation and immunity in COVID-19: establishing a robust and safe immunophenotyping methodology;
  • Dr Hannah Christensen: Social contacts and mixing patterns under COVID19 social distancing measures;
  • Dr Darryl Hill: Understanding the immunomodulatory effects of BCG on subsequent exposure to SARS-CoV2 in human mucosal cells using air liquid interface models;
  • Professor Stephan Lewandowsky: Social licensing of privacyencroaching policies to address COVID-19;
  • Dr James Spencer: In silico screening for approved drug repurposing for COVID-19 using the Bristol University Docking Engine (BUDE);
  • Professor John Coggon: COVID-19: Explaining the legal and ethical dimensions and providing professional and public guidance;
  • Dr Harret Fisher: Understanding the impact on, and experiences of, young people during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Dr Katie Wong: The experiences of the UK Chinese during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative analysis;
  • Dr Emma Williamson; The Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on domestic violence and abuse (DVA) in England;
  • Professor Linda Wooldridge; Identification of T-cell epitopes using a novel MHC-binding prediction tool for the generation of tools to study the T-cell response against SARS-CoV-2;
  • Professor Richard Huxtable: COVID-19 Clinical Ethics Support (CCES);
  • Dr Lucy Wenham: Impacts on school students’ mental health, in light of the COVID -19 pandemic;
  • Professor Pete Cullen: Investigation of SARS-CoV-2 S interaction with neuropilins, a novel gateway for infection’;
  • Professor Karen West: Virtual compassionate communities for extraordinary circumstances;
  • Dr Emma Anderson: COVID -19: Helping pregnant women adhere to behavioural restriction;
  • Professor Dek Woolfson: Structure-function studies of the SARS-CoV-2 envelope (E) protein;
  • Dr Ross Booton: Real-time mathematical modelling of COVID-19 in South West England.

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