Four University of Aberdeen projects that aim to better understand and treat Covid-19 have been backed by funding of more than £62,000 from Medical Research Scotland.
The projects will be led by Professor Mark Vickers, Dr Rute Vieira, Dr Nicola Mutch and Dr Frank Ward. They will explore why different people have different symptoms; how the disease progresses in extremely ill ICU patients; how excessive fibrin forms and impairs lung function in Covid-19 patients; and test the usefulness of drugs that affect the body’s immune system.
The awards from Scotland’s largest independent medical research charity highlight the continued success of the University of Aberdeen’s close partnership with NHS Grampian – with Professor Vickers and Drs Mutch and Vieira all working in collaboration with the health board.
These links are vital to ensuring research projects are answering questions relevant to the NHS and to providing access to the required samples and data.
Professor Vickers’ project in particular hopes to help identify people who, if they catch Covid-19, are at greater risk of becoming particularly poorly. Answering this question could help greatly with planning who is less at risk to return to the workplace, or indeed regular daily life in general, and who may need more protection.
Professor Mark Vickers – £14,060
Almost half of people who contract Covid-19 show no symptoms, but around 10% have a severe reaction.
Professor Vickers’ team will attempt to understand why there is such a dramatic difference in different people.
Most viral infections are controlled by ‘cytotoxic T cells’, which kill infected cells. Patients with mild disease have good T cell responses but those with poorer T cell response can become severely ill.
Existing data on Covid-19 shows older individuals and males are more likely to have poor T cell responses and statistically these groups are more likely to have severe cases of the disease.
It is also known that people who have previously been infected with a virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV) has a major impact on T cells.
It is known that healthcare workers from ethnic minorities have been infected with CMV more often and earlier than other ethnic groups, and that statistically they are more likely to suffer severe Covid-19.
Professor Vickers’ team will assess rates of prior infection with CMV in patients with severe Covid-19 in order to establish whether people who have never had CMV are more resistant to severe Covid-19.
Dr Rute Vieira - £11,670
This project hopes to gain a fuller understanding of how the disease progresses in very ill patients and how the measurements taken by clinicians, such as breathing, blood pressure and lab results, along with physical traits of the patient, such as age, gender and ethnicity, pre-existing illnesses and treatments, can help understand their chance of recovery.
Dr Vieira’s team will investigate the disease progression of each patient individually by analysing the measurements taken over the time they were admitted in the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
This information will help ICU doctors in their decision making for future patients with Covid-19.
Dr Nicola Mutch - £17,219
Similar diseases to Covid-19, including the common flu, can create inflammation which results in deposits of a protein called fibrin. Fibrin is the scaffold that blood clots are made of.
This build-up of fibrin takes up space and reduces the amount of oxygen the lung can take in.
Patients with Covid-19 are prone to forming unwanted blood clots which ultimately increases the risk of death.
Dr Mutch’s project will aim to better understand the mechanisms underlying how this excessive fibrin forms in the lungs of Covid-19 patients and also whether this can be predicted from measuring how fibrin forms and degrades in the blood of these patients.
Better understanding this process will help inform doctors as the most appropriate therapeutic treatments.
Dr Frank Ward - £19,356
Many drugs that suppress the body’s immune system can lead to damaging effects for a patient early in Covid-19 disease.
Dr Ward’s team will test a range of potential drugs which fend off cytokine storm damage whilst allowing the anti-viral immune response to persist and destroy the infection.
The team will examine the inhibitory effects of a group of compounds that have found success in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis in an attempt to define the inhibitory effects of these compounds as a preliminary study of their suitability for treating the COVID-19 cytokine storm.
Vice-Principal for Research, Professor Marion Campbell, welcomed the latest tranche of funding for Covid-19 projects.
Professor Campbell said: “The fight against Covid-19 will not be won overnight and research such as that carried out here at the University of Aberdeen will play a key role in helping us better understand the virus and its impact.
“This crucial funding from Medical Research Scotland comes just weeks after the University was awarded almost £1million from the Chief Scientific Officer to fund another six Covid-19 projects. All of these projects underline the important role Scottish universities have to play in developing new ways of testing, treating and managing this virus.
“I’d also like to pay tribute to the technical, scientific and estates staff who are working tirelessly to ensure the scientists that need access to on-campus laboratories to carry out this important research can do so safely and in timely fashion.”
Medical Research Scotland supports innovative research that aims to improve health in Scotland and internationally. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the charity moved quickly to provide funding to research projects that help understand and combat the disease.
Professor Philip Winn, chair of Medical Research Scotland, said: “Medical Research Scotland is proud to sponsor research into Covid-19 at Scottish Universities. We hope that our prompt actions in supporting excellent labs will enable them to deliver the quality science that will beat this virus.
“The projects we’re funding at the University of Aberdeen have potential to make a real difference for people who contract Covid-19 and to support the global medical community’s understanding and treatment of the virus. The University’s collaborative approach with NHS Grampian demonstrates the immediate relevant of this research.”