Launched in March – just two weeks after the World Health Organisation labelled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic – the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource is building a valuable data and sample collection.
This is available for researchers investigating the virus and is already supporting multiple research studies run by investigators in Cambridge.
Researchers from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease have been studying blood samples taken from the nearly 300 participants in the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource in order to understand why different people experience COVID-19 in such different ways.
Cellular Immunology Theme Lead, Professor Ken Smith, explained: “We want to find out why some people with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms, while others have severe and even life-threatening disease.
“If we can understand why this is, it may help us to develop effective vaccines and identify in advance those who are more at risk of severe illness and who may then benefit from early treatment.”
Professor Ian Goodfellow, Professor of Virology at the University of Cambridge, and his team are using blood samples from the COVID-19 BioResource to look for the presence of antibodies (small molecules in the blood that are important for fighting the infection) that indicate that a person has had the virus and might be immune. His group are evaluating different ‘serology tests’ – blood tests that can determine whether a person has had the virus – using the COVID-19 samples as positive controls.
Their team recently published a pre-print on their work with the samples, outlining the construction of a molecule that mimics the spike protein (abbreviated simply as the ‘S’ protein), found on the outside of the SARS-CoV2 virus. Antibodies in the serum (the liquid component of blood) from COVID-19 BioResource participants latch onto to this created protein, even in samples taken from non-symptomatic participants.
Normally protein molecules are very sensitive to heat and need to be carefully stored so that they are not destroyed, but the S protein mimic developed by Professor Goodfellow and his team is ‘heat-stable’. This means it could be used to develop vaccines or diagnostic tests that can be used and safely transported in places where refrigeration facilities are limited or unreliable.
Immunophenotype and disease severity
Samples from the COVID-19 BioResource are also being used for ‘immunophenotyping’ – looking for the numbers and types of immune cells present in the blood of people with COVID-19. Dr Paul Lyons and his team are investigating whether there is any relationship between a person’s immunophenotype and the severity of their symptoms, and whether and how the immunophenotype changes during the course of infection. This information is important for developing tests that could predict whether a person was going to experience severe COVID-19 and also for developing vaccines that can help the immune system to produce protective responses to the virus.
Single cell analyses
Professors Bertie Gottgens and Menna Clatworthy are investigating samples from the COVID-19 BioResource in minute detail – one cell at a time. Known as ‘single cell’ analyses, their research will help us to understand how individual cells (for example lung cells, or immune cells) are responding to the virus.
Analysing the genetic code
Samples from the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource are also contributing to the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which is analysing the genetic code of the virus from lots of samples taken across the UK. This project aims to detect any changes (mutations) in the virus, which can help researchers to understand how the virus is spreading (lots of people with exactly the same virus code might suggest they all caught it at a similar time or from the same people, for example) and how effective any potential vaccines may be.
These analyses require large numbers of samples to give a true picture of the virus, and resources such as the COVID-19 BioResource make it much easier to collect the samples required.
In addition to biological (diagnostic swabs and blood) samples and health data, the NIHR COVID-19 Bioresource has a strong focus on mental health and neurological symptoms, allowing researchers to better understand these under-researched aspects of COVID-19. The samples and data are de-identified and stored in secure facilities, from where researchers can apply to the BioResource for access.
Dr Nathalie Kingston, Director of the NIHR BioResource, said: “We can easily recruit patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, as well as clinical staff working in the NHS. This has allowed us to build a valuable resource that covers a spectrum of COVID-19 severity and experience – from asymptomatic carries through to those requiring specialist care.
“As the pandemic continues into its next phase, the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource will also enable us to invite participants who wish to take part in further studies to better understand long-term outcomes and recovery.”
These studies are integrated with the British Society of Immunology/Academy of Medical Sciences national immune phenotyping programme, and also with human genetic studies led by Genomics England. The NIHR COVID-19 BioResource has been developed to support essential COVID-19 research, and expressions of interest from research teams interested in collaborating or accessing the samples are welcome.