Norfolk scientists saving the world
- Credit: Archant
Experts from Norfolk are at the forefront of an international effort to combat coronavirus
As coronavirus swept around the world scientists raced to discover how it was spreading and to begin work on identifying preventions, treatments and cures. Many hundreds of people are involved in initiatives being developed on the Norwich Research Park which could save millions of lives. Scientists and medics are working together on many projects including processing thousands of coronavirus tests every day, with results available within 24 hours.
Mapping and antibodies
The Quadram Institute is part of a government project to map the spread and behaviours of the coronavirus in the UK through large-scale, rapid genome sequencing of samples taken from patients. This is helping scientists understand how the virus works, map its spread, and assess the effectiveness of control measures such as lockdown and physical distancing and advise on treatments. One project is working on vaccine delivery, with a technology developed by Professor Simon Carding, based on using bacteria in the gut. Another part of the project, working with teams in Kent and Liverpool, is developing tests for identifying antibodies, to make it possible to tell if people have had the disease.
University of East Anglia
Hundreds of the UEA’s trainee nurses and midwives, including 95% of final year students, are boosting the workforce by taking on extra hospital placements. Fifth year medical students are working in hospitals and staff from the School of Health Sciences are retraining former healthcare workers including nurses, doctors, midwives, paramedics, physiotherapists and health care assistants who have returned in response to the Norfolk Needs You campaign.
Tony Jermy, a lecturer in nursing sciences, said: “It’s been fantastic to see so many people returning and it’s been a humbling community experience to be involved with. One of the biggest challenges has been to try and tell a group of people whose first instinct is to help others that they have to look after themselves before they can administer aid.”
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More UEA staff have turned teaching labs into hand sanitiser factories. Working with local breweries and distilleries they are supplying NHS hospitals and surgeries, local authorities and local cancer patients.
The Government’s call for help making ventilators was answered by UEA researchers using 3D printers to make ventilator parts and masks.
Prof Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, is an advisor to the World Health Organisation and has researched the effectiveness of facemasks, how the rise of fake news helps the spread of infectious disease, how societies can recover from the effects of tackling the virus, and ways to prevent future pandemics.
UEA researchers who were already working on ways to improve treatment for pneumonia are now helping coronavirus patients, getting tailored treatments to critically-ill patients within hours. Pneumonia is one of the main symptoms of severe Covid-19, with patients put on ventilators to help their breathing. But this can increase the risk of bacteria entering the lungs.
Prof David Livermore from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “We know that some Covid-19 patients get secondary pneumonias but it’s a new disease and no one knows what types of bacteria are most likely. Within an hour his team can identify 26 pneumonia pathogens, detect whether they have critical antibiotic resistances and help medical staff know which antibiotics to use, reducing the use of unnecessary antibiotics and potential antibiotic resistance.
A Norwich company is working on a coronavirus home test kit which would tell people whether or not they had coronavirus in less than 20 minutes. Iceni Diagnostics, a spin-out company from the John Innes Centre, has previously created prototype products to detect norovirus and different types of influenza.
The new test would look like a pregnancy test, with users putting their saliva on the end of the stick and waiting less than 20 minutes for a simple yes/no answer.
Iceni Diagnostics chairman Dr Berwyn Clarke said: “This could change it all. At the moment what people – and particularly NHS staff – are struggling with is whether or not they are carrying the virus, or if they do have symptoms, whether it’s for the coronavirus or something else. This kit would allow people to potentially test themselves at home.”
He said it usually takes around six months to get a prototype launched and the team of eight is trying to raise between £1m-£2m to speed up development.”
It would identify the virus by its reliance on chains of sugars, called glycans, rather than by its genetic code, which could mutate.
Professor Neil Hall, Director of the Earlham Institute, said: “We’re fortunate to have world-leading scientists who can apply their skills to a range of problems. There couldn’t be a more immediate need than tackling this virus.
“Our research normally focuses on developing technology to understand how genetics and the environment interact to create the beautiful and complex world we live in. Viruses are part of that world and we need to learn more about them so we can develop the tools to limit the death and suffering they cause.”
The Norwich Research Park includes the University of East Anglia, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the John Innes Centre, the Quadram Institute, the Earlham Institute, The Sainsbury Laboratory, the Eastern Pathology Alliance and the Cotman Centre. Three thousand researchers and clinicians are based here. Executive chair David Parfrey said: “It is truly humbling to witness first-hand the commitment of our colleagues at Norwich Research Park in putting all their energies into helping the UK deal with this unprecedented virus outbreak. Few people outside of the park will have been privy to the scale of this situation before, but it’s something that many of the people here are dealing with every day as they devise new ways of addressing the world’s most critical health and food issues.
“We are fortunate to count the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital as one of the partners of Norwich Research Park and I would like to say a huge thanks on behalf of our community for the hard work our wonderful colleagues there are doing right now. This is indeed a challenging time, but it also a time when we can show off our very best, whether that is simple kindnesses in the community, following Government advice to limit the pressure on the NHS, or our scientists combating the disease; we all have something to give.
“We are committed to doing the most we can to help and to rid our world of this horrible virus.”
Treatments for coronavirus are being trialled in Norfolk.
The RECOVERY trial at the Norfolk and Norwich is testing potential treatments including drugs already used for HIV and inflammation. At the James Paget Hospital, Gorleston a clinical trial is comparing standard intubation and ventilation with non-invasive ways of delivering oxygen to help determine which is most effective.