The Royal Society reports that every £1 invested in medical research delivers a return equivalent of around 25 pence every year, forever. Due to the current global situation, many of these vital investments are on hold. However, the sector is adapting to the new landscape. Here, Katie Gray explains how UK laboratories are remaining productive during the lockdown.
A functioning lab requires two things — scientists and a safe place to work. In any normal circumstance, these would be fairly easy to get your hands on. However, under the current circumstances, creating a safe working space and putting the right scientist in touch with the right business or research group is more difficult.
Scientists and technical equipment
The UK has fought the devastating effects of COVID-19, with healthcare workers, scientists and researchers operating on the front line. Despite the UK’s requirement for talented scientists, one effect caused by the pandemic is that many scientists working on non-critical research have been furloughed. This means that there are many highly skilled researchers desperate to work.
Furloughing also means that many laboratories with specialised equipment, such as containment level 3 facilities, liquid handling equipment and qPCR / PCR equipment, are not currently being used. With hospitals and businesses in desperate need of testing capacity and specialists to analyse test samples, the market requires a tool to bring these dissociated pieces together.
Scientists on Standby is a rapidly conceptualised and launched tool in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The founders of the project are working to try and relieve the pressure on UK diagnostic testing laboratories and facilities by pairing hospitals and businesses with furloughed scientists and unused equipment. The portal enables scientists with relevant skills and experience to volunteer their time, expertise and support for COVID-19 screening and testing.
“Initially, we were inspired by how companies and people within the life industry rallied together during the first few weeks of the crisis,” explained Dr Paul Avery and Dr Clare Russell, founders of Scientists on Standby. “We were looking for novel ways that we could help in the battle to diagnose and treat COVID-19. Over half of the BioStrata team has experience working at the lab bench and many wanted to know if there was a way to volunteer their expertise to help. At the time, there were no options available, so we created one — and Scientists on Standby was born.”
Many life changing discoveries take place in the lab, but there is a problem. Some labs are small, cramped spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. This has meant that many laboratories have had to close, because they cannot guarantee adequate social distancing standards for scientists and lab technicians.
However, technicians are working hard to try and upgrade labs to help them get back into action and also use the resources they have on hand as effectively as possible. In fact, when Aston University’s laboratories were forced to close earlier this year, they decided to make the most of the situation by converting equipment to help produce hand sanitiser, while also rounding up unused PPE to deliver to the NHS.
“Technical colleagues across Aston’s laboratories have been working extremely hard,” explained Jiteen Ahmed, technical manager at Aston University. “They enabled the safe and successful shutdown of both teaching and research labs and for us to aid the NHS in its time of need. These latter activities, in direct response to the combined effort to tackle COVID-19, have really boosted the morale of the academic and technical community during these challenging times.”
Getting back on our feet
Following a period of downtime, it’s important that the laboratory industry has the means to bounce back quickly and effectively. To ensure this happens, it’s important for lab professionals to come together, celebrate their achievements and plan for the year ahead.
This year Lab Innovations will take place November 4-5 in Birmingham, UK.
Katie Gray is with Lab Innovations