$23 million UK COVID-19 consortium looking for tools to fight the virus and save lives
By Amy Ratner, Medical and Science New Analyst
A scientist who received a 2019 Beyond Celiac research grant to study killer cells that cause the actual tissue damage in celiac disease is now playing a key role in the search for answers about COVID-19.
Paul Klenerman, PhD, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of Oxford, Oxford, England, and an immunologist who has done extensive work in Hepatitis C and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), is part of the newly formed COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium.
Some of the approaches being used in the celiac disease research will also be applied to the investigation of COVID-19, Klenerman said.
The $23 million COVID-19 project is designed to track the spread of the new coronavirus and watch for emerging mutations by using gene sequencing to analyze the strains causing thousands of COVID-19 infections across Britain.
The goal of the project is to equip health practitioners with a tool that can help to combat the virus and save lives.
“The disease caused by the new coronavirus (COVID-19) is driven by a virus infection, and ultimately in some cases leads to inflammation in the lungs caused by the immune response against that virus,” Klenerman said. “The processes which drive whether a person makes a response to a virus which is helpful or harmful are not so different to the ones which govern whether you make a helpful or harmful response to gluten. The tools we are using to unpick this in the gut of patients with celiac disease can readily be applied to COVID-19.”
Those tools were originally developed to study virus infection, so they are flexible, Klenerman noted. Cells from patient, either from blood or samples from airways, are taken and then scientists look at each cell individually in great detail. RNA is sequenced to provide information about the specific function of each immune cell.
“We want to use this information to understand why some people handle the virus so much better than others, and what the cause of the lung inflammation is in detail,” Klenerman explained. “This will help us assess patients better and design effective interventions,” he said.
Another parallel between celiac disease and COVID-19, is the use of antibody tests for diagnosis. In the case of COVID-19, the tests need to be developed from scratch. “These will also help us track the spread of the disease,” Klenerman said.
Researchers will collect data from samples from infected patients in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, a statement released by the British government said. Working in teams across Britain, scientists will map out and analyze the full genetic codes of the COVID-19 samples. Samples from patients with confirmed cases of Covid-19 will be sent to a network of sequencing centers across the UK.
By studying the whole virus genome in confirmed cases, scientists can – on a national scale –monitor changes in the virus, according to a report by Reuters. This analysis will help them to understand how COVID-19 is spreading and whether different strains are emerging. The findings will also enable clinicians and public health teams to rapidly investigate clusters of cases in hospitals, care homes and in the community. Insights gained will help them to track how the virus is spreading and implement appropriate infection control measures, Reuters reported.
“All viruses accumulate mutations over time, some faster than others. For COVID-19, this has only just begun – but this emerging variation can be tracked in detail,” Klenerman told Reuters.
Klenerman, received the Beyond Celiac Established Investigator Award, a grant of up to $100,000 for each of three years. The award placed emphasis on immunology and was designed to support new and novel approaches to understanding celiac disease. It also encourages scientists working in another related field, like Klenerman, to turn their attention to celiac disease.