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Research teams at St George's step up efforts to tackle coronavirus pandemic

Published: 02 April 2020

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Research teams at St George's are stepping up efforts to support national and international efforts to tackle coronavirus (Covid-19).

The University will remain open for researchers working on clinical trials and diagnostic tests for the disease, as well as those looking to understand the underlying biology of the virus and the body’s immune response. Research addressing other healthcare challenges is also continuing remotely where possible. 

The first trial led by the University to receive ethical approval is the collection of clinical samples from COVID-19-infected patients. These samples will initially be used to evaluate a rapid antibody test designed to tell people if they have coronavirus or not.

This project will be led by Professor Sanjeev Krishna and Dr Tim Planche from the Institute of Infection & Immunity at St George’s, University of London. The test, being developed by the company Mologic, has received funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and The Wellcome Trust. Achieving ethical approval for this trial brings the test even closer to being used across healthcare systems.

The clinical samples collected from St George’s Hospital patients as part of this trial will also enable the University to carry out further investigations into the biology of coronavirus and how it can be treated.

Dr Tim Planche said: “Without testing and samples, you’re fighting coronavirus blind. This study will enable the work of a taskforce at St George’s to tackle the disease, by giving all parts of the University quick access to samples in a national time of need.

“We’ve got one shot at this, and by opening up our samples to be looked at by many people to evaluate the immune response, virus clearance and more, we can have the greatest impact.”

As well as focusing on diagnostics, the University will be contributing to other fields of research. Projects will include: being involved in national and international trials for potential treatments for COVID-19, understanding transmission in pregnant women and babies, understanding the biology of the disease, influencing policy on infection control, and developing guidance for clinicians.*

Many of the trials will benefit from a joint approach between St George’s, University of London and St George’s University Hospital. The trials of new treatments, which are being run by St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, have already started and patients are being recruited by University and Trust staff.  Doctors and nurses at the hospital will be collaborating with researchers at the University to provide samples and data to enable a direct link from patients to research and research to patients. In particular, the Clinical Research Facility managed by St George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is now almost completely focused on COVID-19 research.

Deputy Principal for Research at St George’s, University of London, Professor Jon Friedland, said: “The whole University is mobilising clinical, diagnostic and underlying scientific research so that we can help the effort against COVID-19. We want to send out the message that St George’s is very much open to research on COVID-19, and we are welcoming collaborations with partners across industry and academia.

“As a specialist health university with a major interest in infection and a strong history of successful translational research, we can see the impact COVID-19 is having on a national and global scale, so our research on site is now focused on tackling this disease. Our aim is to improve treatments and outcomes for patients, with our experts developing better and faster diagnostic tests, evaluating drugs to treat the disease, and working towards understanding the both transmission of the virus and how the human immune system responds to it so vaccines can be developed.”

St George’s, University of London has a proud history of contributing to the control and eradication of diseases, from Edward Jenner’s research into the first ever vaccine to current efforts against diseases such as meningitis and malaria. This medical and scientific expertise is now focused towards beating the current coronavirus pandemic.

*See below COVID-19 research examples at the University:

Finding treatments for COVID-19

Dr Tihana Bicanic and Dr Tom Harrison, Clinical Academics in the Institute for Infection and Immunity, are Principal Investigators at St George’s University Hospital for a national trial of investigational treatments for COVID-19 infection. The RECOVERY trial, led by University of Oxford, aims to enrol hospitalised patients and randomise them to one of five different treatment arms. The first St George’s Hospital patient was enrolled on Monday 30th March.

Dr Tihana Bicanic has also added a further arm to her AspiFlu study. The research aims to reveal the proportion of patients with severe flu on intensive care that go on to develop a fungal lung infection called aspergillosis and understand the immune mechanisms behind this complication. The study has now been expanded to include COVID-19 patients on intensive care.

Dr Elisabetta Groppelli is setting up her lab to safely handle the COVID-19 virus. Her work will involve testing different drugs in cell culture to assess their potency and potential in preventing and treating COVID-19. This research will shed light into the weaknesses of the virus and how they can be exploited for therapeutic intervention. 

Understanding COVID-19 transmission in pregnant women and babies

Researchers at the University will be running a unique study to determine if the COVID-19 virus passes from pregnant women to their infants. Dr Shamez Ladhani, Professor Paul Heath and Dr Kirsty Le Doare will evaluate whether, and how often, transmission of the virus occurs through this route.

Understanding the biology of the disease

St George’s, University of London is one of a limited number of universities with laboratories designed to contain harmful pathogens such as COVID-19. With researchers experienced in working with other contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV, the laboratories will be transformed to work with COVID-19.

Professor Derek Macallan from the Institute of Infection & Immunity will be making use of the samples provided by the diagnostic study. His research will focus on understanding the immune response to the virus. If his group can find ways of better controlling the immune response to COVID-19, it may be possible to avert some of the severe complications found in some patients hospitalised with the disease.

Influencing policy on infection control

Dr Sally Hargreaves is an expert in migrant health and infectious diseases. When it comes to COVID-19, her focus is on raising awareness of how this disease affects marginalised migrant communities within Europe and beyond. Dr Hargreaves has led on a piece published in the BMJ highlighting the issues facing these groups.

Tens of thousands of migrants are based in camps across the continent, or working as low-skilled labour migrants, and they are often marginalised, living in appalling conditions, and with restricted access to mainstream health services. These factors significantly complicate the control of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Dr Hargreaves efforts are focused on bringing this to the attention of those responsible for national plans for COVID-19.

Guiding primary care clinicians on dealing with coronavirus

Professor Pippa Oakeshott, Dr Mohammad Razai and Dr Shamez Ladhani have produced guidance for GPs on the front-line dealing with potential coronavirus cases. Originally published in the British Medical Journal, the guidance has been developed further into an online course which is now open for enrolment.

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