Combating Covid-19 with Bioscience

Professor Vikki Rand explains how Teesside University bioscience experts are responding to coronavirus

Teesside University’s £22.3 million National Horizons Centre (NHC), which officially opened in October 2019, is a state-of-the-art bioscience facility that brings together research, teaching and enterprise. The NHC was established to directly address the potential of the bioeconomy. According to latest official figures, the bioeconomy supports 5.2 million jobs and contributes £220 billion GVA in the UK alone, and the government’s Industrial Strategy is setting ambitious targets to double its size by 2030. However, six months on, and the NHC has had to dramatically re-focus its immediate priorities in response to Covid-19, which has placed a considerable amount of strain on our fantastic NHS.

Within days of the World Health Organisation declaring a global pandemic, the NHC supplied tens of thousands of pounds of specialist kit and equipment to North Tees and Hartlepool Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to help them scale-up testing for Covid-19. This includes a specialist Qiacube Connect platform from Qiagen and RNeasy extraction kits, which rapidly speed up the testing process. The equipment is being used to automate extraction of Covid-19 viral RNA from several clinical specimens, which will be instrumental in helping to scale up to the demand for Covid-19 testing that we are faced with.

In addition, the university has offered lab and bench space, as well as specialists within the NHC to help run the tests and supplied consumables that are in short supply, such as gloves and pipettes to other NHS Trusts. It also provided County Durham and Darlington Foundation NHS Trust with specialist PCR machines to run the current tests and offered other equipment such as the Illumina MiSeq system for high-throughput sequencing of the virus.

Beyond its immediate response, the NHC is part of a study working with clinicians from local NHS Trusts to understand the clinical course of Covid-19 cases in the region. This study has collected clinical data from coronavirus patients which staff at the NHC are analysing to identify risk factors associated with patient survival that could guide future treatment strategies. In parallel, staff are developing biological studies to investigate several aspects of Covid-19 and underlying conditions such as respiratory disease.

The cytokine storm and Covid-19 severity

One such area is investigating the “Cytokine storm”, which is associated with Covid-19 disease severity and is a common complication not only of Covid-19 but also other respiratory diseases caused by coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. They are also associated with non-infectious diseases such as multiple sclerosis and pancreatitis. At the time of writing the NHC is developing a project looking at this, and also has colleagues whose expertise is relevant to the crisis and may be utilised as required: for example, in cellular models of epithelial lining of the lungs and inflammation markers and cytokines.

In partnership with clinicians and scientists in Pakistan, Turkey and China the NHC is looking at mining and designing mechanistic inhibitors against major proteins of SARS-Cov-2, the virus which causes Covid-19. It is necessary to assess the potential of existing drugs against various target proteins and RNA present in the virus. This project is discerning current drug databases for such compounds and looking at synthesis of novel compounds with low toxicity. This allows timely identification of the already approved drugs for the infected population and has already found a potential candidate which can easily be repurposed for the patients which is being trialled by NHC’s collaborator in Pakistan.

The centre specialises in biologics, biomedical sciences and industrial biotechnology, and applying digital technologies to improve performance and productivity, and exists to foster breakthrough ideas through cutting-edge research. However, it also works in partnership with regional, national and international industry such as Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies and Centre for Process Innovation to provide specialist education, training and professional development for the current and future workforce.

The bigger picture of bioscience outside coronavirus

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has required the team to re-think its immediate objectives, much of the NHC’s wider work is ongoing and it wants to continue (as much as possible) to deliver on its original mission. Despite only being operational for six months, the NHC has already delivered a number of outcomes for the biosciences sector building on its flexible and distinctive approach to working with businesses spanning: research and evaluation; testing and lab-based experimental work; near-market research and development; technical support for specialist facilities and equipment; expert witness services; product design and product testing; and needs analysis and problem-solving.

The NHC continues to look forward, and through THYME – a collaboration between Teesside, Hull and York universities to boost the bioeconomy across those regions – it has received further Research England Connecting Capability Fund funding for seven industry collaboration projects, and the NHC is a partner in six of these:

  • Quadrum Institute and University of Hull – using machine learning techniques to model the best conditions for microorganisms in the human gut to underpin the improved efficiency of a probiotic product.
  • Unilever, Quorn, Croda and University of Hull – developing a micro-bioreactor system for a range of miniaturised bioprocessing applications, providing a rapid and low cost means of acquiring physiological, metabolic and productivity data within a variety of cells.
  • Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies and University of York – increasing the productivity and reducing waste in microbiological protein production by exploiting how microbes react to the formation of protein aggregates.
  • Northumbrian Water and University of York – investigating the microbiology occurring within the Anaerobic Digestion (AD) process during waste water treatment and generating recommendations for AD process optimisation.
  • Naturiol Bangor and University of York – determining the feasibility of oil extracted from Alexanders seed as a highly valuable food ingredient to create low saturated fat, dairy free products.
  • Yorkshire Water and University of York – investigating the feasibility of an AD innovation facility to test and demonstrate new processes and technologies.

Finally, and from an individual perspective, my research on cancer genomic and global health aims to understand the biology of lymphoma and other cancers to identify biomarkers and develop new treatment strategies to reduce treatment-related toxicity in a bid to improve outcome of relapsed/refractory disease. Using a combination of cutting-edge techniques my team is determining the presence, frequency and structure of genetic abnormalities in childhood and adult cancers in the UK, Africa and Pakistan. The team is investigating the clinical importance of these genetic abnormalities by correlating the genetic data with clinical information and investigating the role of these abnormalities in the cancer cell.

The NHC, based in Darlington’s Central Park, brings together experts from research and enterprise, who work together to achieve our common goal to improve the health of people across our region, the UK and beyond.

Professor Vikki Rand is Head of Biosciences Research at the National Horizons Centre

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