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Artists impression of novel coronavirus and lung diagram.

The MRC WIMM has offered its facilities and platforms for COVID-19 researchers, and several of its researchers are actively working to understand the novel coronavirus.

At the MRC HIU:

Professor Tao Dong - Protective Immune Responses

Professor Dong has long-term collaborations in China Beijing’s You ‘an and Ditan Hospitals, and is also collaborating with Chinese colleagues at Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Nankai University. In addition, Professor Dong has agreed with Professor Cao Xuetao, as co-Directors of the CAMS Oxford Institute, to prioritise projects for COVID-19 Research. Her laboratory is investigating immune cell (‘T cell’) responses to SARS-CoV2 in order to develop improvements in vaccines and treatments.

Professor Alain Townsend - Neutralising Antibodies and Protein Vaccines

Professor Townsend (Radcliffe Department of Medicine) is identifying and characterising monoclonal antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 with a view to the development of future therapeutics. In the longer term, he is working with Professor Mark Howarth in the Department of Biochemistry in Oxford to make a protein aggregate vaccine based on the spike protein. Overall, this work will contribute to vaccine and therapeutic developments.

Dr Giorgio Napolitani & Dr Mariolina Salio – COVID-19 pathogenesis, diagnostics and vaccines

To accelerate the development of diagnostics and vaccines for SARS-CoV2 and our understanding of COVID-19 pathogenesis, we need tools to define how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV2, and whether vaccines in development can induce immune responses with the potential to protect against this virus. Drs Napolitani and Salio will focus on T cells which have the capacity to kill other cells infected with viruses. They will identify which parts of the virus these T cells recognise which will help us to generate tools to understand whether patients with COVID-19 or individuals vaccinated with candidate vaccines against this disease develop SARS-CoV2 specific T cells capable of protecting against infection. In addition, these tools will also support the development of diagnostics. They are also collaborating with Dr Hashem Koohy at the MRC Human Immunology Unit to use bioinformatic approaches to predict which parts of the virus might be recognized by T cells

Professor Alexander Hal Drakesmith – iron biology and COVID-19

A feature of patients with severe COVID-19 infection is anaemia and changed concentrations of iron in the bloodstream. Professor Drakesmith’s laboratory is investigating whether the altered iron levels and the anaemia might cause less efficient immune responses against the virus, allowing the infection to persist. If so, therapies aimed at correcting iron imbalances might improve the outcome of infection.

Professor Graham Ogg and Professor Richard Cornall (NDM) are on the University of Oxford Immunology Steering Committee to help co-ordinate wider COVID-19 immunology research and to integrate into wider university activities of vaccine development, clinical trials, epidemiology, serology, clinical studies and contact tracing. These activities include collaborations with Paul Klenerman, Gavin Screaton, Julian Knight, Andrew Pollard, Sarah Gilbert, Teresa Lambe, William James and Alex Mentzer, and many others. The work also integrates into the NHS, and national and international collaborations.

Provision of platforms and expertise for wider community collaborations

The Human Immunology Unit has access to core platforms to support collaborative work, including flow cytometry, CyTOF, imaging CyTOF, super-resolution imaging, T cell bioinformatic expertise, and sequencing. With new MRC-funded equipment (Cell Sorter, 10x Chromium, BD Rhapsody, High-throughput Luminex) the Unit will be well-equipped to address major scientific questions towards diagnosis, vaccination, therapeutics and mechanisms underlying COVID-19 disease.

At the MRC MHU:

Why do some people develop more severe consequences due to COVID-19 than others? Professor Paresh Vyas, Professor Adam Mead and Dr Bethan Psaila, together with their MRC HIU colleagues, are leading efforts to understand this. They’re interested in questions such as whether the production of ageing blood determines more adverse outcomes to the infection, and if so, why?

Professors Jim HughesJames Davies and Adam Mead in collaboration with Nucleome Therapeutics, are leading an initiative to develop new, faster and larger screening platforms that will help identify infected individuals in the population.