Spotlight on COVID-19 research: Professors Imre Berger and Christiane Schaffitzel

COVID-19: Discovery of a druggable pocket in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein

When husband-and-wife dynamic duo Professors Imre Berger (Max Planck-Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology) and Christiane Schaffitzel (School of Biochemistry) found themselves in lockdown in March 2020, unable to teach or run their normal workday at the University of Bristol, they did not hang up their lab coats. Instead (while complying with all necessary safety measures) they assembled a cohort of volunteers from their teams and set to work to do what they could to stop COVID-19 in its tracks, as part of the bigger Bristol University COVID-19 Emergency Research Group (UNCOVER). (more…)

Spotlight on COVID-19 research: Professor Jonathan P Reid

 

Image of aerosol research (C) Declan Costello

COVID-19: Looking at different ways in which aerosol research can support the fight against COVID-19

As Director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science and the Bristol Aerosol Research Centre, Professor Jonathan Reid’s approach to tackling COVID-19 is, naturally, focused on aerosols. ‘Aerosols’ is a term that is used to refer to a collection of particles that are airborne and with sizes typically smaller than the diameter of a human hair. When we speak, breathe, cough or even sing, we generate hundreds of these particles that someone else could breathe in, transmitting the virus responsible for COVID-19.

A key piece of work from Professor Reid has shown that there is significantly less risk of COVID-19 transmission from anaesthesia procedures than was previously thought. This is an important finding at a time when many operations and NHS procedures have been postponed or cancelled, causing problems for patients in the UK.

Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much debate about the danger to hospital staff from anaesthetic procedures. Concerns include that inserting a tube in the patient’s airway (intubation) before surgery or removing it at the end (extubation) may produce a fine mist of small aerosol particles and spread the COVID-19 virus to nearby staff.

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Spotlight on COVID-19 Research: Dr Laura Rivino

COVID-19: Immune correlates of hyperinflammation and protective immunity in COVID-19

As we grapple with the nightmare scenario of a global pandemic, scientists around the world, including at Bristol, are diving into research around as many aspects of the COVID-19 virus as possible. One of the key findings to date is that in serious cases the body’s immune system goes into ‘overdrive’. Evidence accumulated so far suggests that the life-threatening COVID-19 complications are related to immune dysregulation, arising because of viral infection in the form of a hyperinflammatory syndrome accompanied by increased plasma levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines.(1-2)

Immunologist Dr Laura Rivino is conducting a pilot study that should provide us with a clearer understanding of the immune response underlying both the immunopathology and immune protection in patients with COVID-19. Her team’s hypothesis is that it would be beneficial to use a combination of strategies where the anti-inflammatory response can be blocked while simultaneously boosting the anti-viral immune response, with an expectation of ensuring viral clearance and establishment of immunological memory.

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Spotlight on COVID-19 Research: Dr Saffron Karlsen

COVID-19: Black lives in lockdown – the pandemic experiences of people with Black, Asian and minority ethnicities living in the South West

For many people, the reports that COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting those in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities was news to them. For Dr Saffron Karlsen, however, it was not. As Associate Professor in Sociology and a specialist in inequalities in health research, Dr Karlsen has spent over 20 years looking at how structural and societal  inequalities hamper health and healthcare for those in ethnic minority groups. (more…)

You’re rising to a global challenge

Dr David Matthews (left), Reader in Virology and Dr Andrew Davidson (right), Reader in Systems Virology in front of their new microscope. The screen shows a virus interacting with cells.

Professor Adam Finn, of the Bristol Medical School, provides an insight into an extraordinary year for Bristol’s community of biomedical researchers.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my laboratory was focused on the impact of vaccinations on respiratory infections in children. But when COVID-19 hit, we were compelled to pause that work, and redirect our efforts. The nature of our research meant it was possible to make that shift rapidly and we weren’t alone: researchers across the University of Bristol were applying their expertise to the emerging pandemic. The University’s COVID-19 Emergency Research group (Bristol UNCOVER) emerged organically and within a month, there were over 100 researchers, from a vast range of disciplines, meeting online each day to pool resources and expertise, and share progress.

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Bristol alumni set up to help new medics during COVID-19

Junior doctorsIn response to COVID-19 our 2020 MBChB students graduated early to begin their medical careers and help during these unprecedented times. The Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO), together with the Bristol Medical School, reached out to the doctors in our alumni community to see if they could offer their support and advice during this time, we had an overwhelming response and some truly inspiring and encouraging offers of help.

An incredible 40 alumni offered their time to support our newly graduated MBChB junior doctors, and from those we were able to match 25 students to alumni. These included alumni working in hospitals such as the; BRI, Swindon, Southmead and Taunton. We even had offers of remote support from doctors working outside the Severn Deanery hospitals which was fantastic to receive.

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COVID-19 Research Appeal goes from strength to strength

As we reach the end of another strange month in 2020, with the UK still in lockdown, it is wonderful to report that alumni and friends’ support for our appeal for COVID-19 research continues to be an enormous success.

If you are perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, please take some comfort in the fact that Bristol’s team of COVID-19 scientists, researchers and academics – over 147 of them – are working hard to tackle this enormous global challenge. They are helped, in no small part, by the £200,000 donated so far to our COVID-19 Research Appeal, an astonishing outpouring of support and belief in Bristol.

Professor Jeremy Tavaré, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, recorded a thank you message this week for the 600 donors who have given to Bristol’s COVID-19 research.

It’s important to remain hopeful that Bristol’s research, in collaboration with partners in the UK and around the world, could be key in getting us back to some kind of normality. Support from alumni is crucial, because like many universities in the UK and around the world, Bristol has had to freeze capital budgets as we wait to understand the full impact of the pandemic on higher education. The passionate interest that alumni and friends are showing for our research is certainly spurring on our COVID-19 team at Bristol.

Progress to date on ramping up our research

From the donations coming in to our appeal we have so far managed to achieve the following:

The installation of a new incubator into Drs David Matthews and Andrew Davidson’s secure laboratory, to enable their teams to scale up their research. David and Andrew’s work on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID- 19, is focused on understanding the pathogenesis of the virus. Their work is taking place in Bristol in one of only two specialist university labs in the whole of the UK and is critical to the development of diagnostic tools, drugs and vaccines to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Setting up additional secure (Category Level 3) laboratories at Bristol University’s Langford site to facilitate research into the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV2, led by Professor Jonathan Reid and colleagues from the Bristol Aerosol Research Centre.

The purchase of a state-of-the art microscope, which will enable the rapid imaging and screening of cells, providing critical data for researchers working on COVID-19 at Bristol and much further afield.

The purchase of an ELIspot Reader, a highly sensitive instrument for measuring immune responses to infection and vaccination. This instrument can extract large amounts of data from very small numbers of cell samples, so it is key for developing new vaccines and treatments for the virus at speed.

The acquisition of an RNA extraction instrument, which prepares cell samples for COVID-19 diagnostic testing. The University will now be ideally placed to test and validate new approaches to the diagnosis of the virus, while also being ready to contribute to the national capability for COVID-19 testing.

Critical funds for the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, which is supporting researchers across the University who are applying their expertise to the pandemic.

Bristol’s researchers in the fields of immunology, infectious diseases and public health continue to contribute to the world’s understanding and control of this shocking epidemic. It is truly an interdisciplinary project and there’s real momentum behind the work. Bristol is incredibly well-placed to take advantage of this and to use our expertise to help the world through this pandemic. You can read about everything we’re doing as it happens on our web page dedicated to the University’s COVID-19 research and on this blog.

Bristol is one of the few centres in the UK with such specialist expertise in the study of coronaviruses. This appeal is a great opportunity to make a difference in the race to unlock valuable new information about the COVID-19 virus, which we believe can result from Bristol’s expertise.

– Dr Jonathan de Pass (MBChB 1979) and Mrs Georgina de Pass, COVID-19 Research Appeal donors

 

COVID-19 appeal launched to overwhelming support from alumni

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world, a group of researchers at the University of Bristol has united to collaborate on finding ways to overcome the disease. An appeal for funding to support this work has been met with fantastic support from alumni.

The University’s COVID-19 Emergency Research Group (UNCOVER) are addressing a wide range of areas as a priority, which are explained in great detail on our main website.

In particular, Dr David Matthews and Dr Andrew Davidson, who have been working on the human coronavirus since 2002, have mobilised their teams to scale up their research. Their work on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is focused on understanding the pathogenesis of the virus. Their work is taking place in Bristol in one of only two specialist university labs in the whole of the UK and is critical to the development of diagnostic tools, drugs and vaccines to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

To date, alumni donations have procured critical equipment and resources, including a new incubator for Drs Matthews and Davidson’s laboratory. Additionally, donations have funded the preparation of another high-security laboratory, suitable for handling SARS-CoV-2, to allow the expansion of this fundamental research. And alumni have matched the funding offered by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, enabling research into testing and vaccines to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers around the University are now looking to quickly scale up our research on COVID-19, which includes: growing the capacity of our secure laboratories and providing our researchers with the equipment they need; early tests on vaccines that could be capable of combatting the virus; and tapping into our unique ‘Children of the 90s’ cohort to track the factors that impact susceptibility to infection and understand the true frequency of infection.

So far hundreds of alumni have donated to this vital research and for this we say a resounding thank you. We know that unfortunately many of our alumni are facing financial hardship as a result of this pandemic, but for anyone who may be able to support the research you can read more and donate online.

Bristol Voices launched to support students through COVID-19

The first wave of Bristol alumni and staff have already volunteered to support remotely – via phone or messaging services – current students affected by social distancing as a result of COVID-19, through our just-launched Bristol Voices programme.

The University is home to many students and this is a particularly difficult time for them. Whilst the University has comprehensive support available, a lack of regular contact with friends, colleagues and classmates can quickly lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Bristol Voices is our response to supporting students during this uncertain time. Through Bristol Voices, we are connecting students remaining in Bristol with a dedicated member of the Bristol community for enhanced, one-on-one interaction to support their social wellbeing. Bristol Voices is a collaboration between the Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO) and the Student Services team and is part of the University’s wider response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The University of Bristol already has a dedicated support system in place with free services for all students. Bristol Voices is an additional programme established with our alumni community in mind, to offer extra, informal social support for our students during COVID-19.

Our volunteers have a wide range of experience and backgrounds, and knowledge of student life at Bristol. We have alumni signed up to volunteer who studied an array of subjects and work in many different fields, including teachers, managers and researchers. But what they all have in common is a willingness to help and lend an ear to these students who may currently be struggling with social isolation.

We are very appreciative of the alumni who have put themselves forward during these difficult circumstances, and we welcome them joining the hundreds of volunteers we currently work with across a wide range of programmes.

Read more about alumni volunteering opportunities.

Your University’s reponse to COVID-19: a message from Professor Hugh Brady

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Bristol, has a message for all our alumni and friends.

The impact of COVID-19 continues to be felt profoundly around the world. Today, I would like to update you on how Bristol is protecting its global community of staff, students and alumni. I also want to share with you how, with the support of our alumni community, our researchers are working to understand COVID-19, and combat this pandemic.

Caring for students and staff

Last week, in common with many UK universities, we took the difficult decision to end our Easter term early. This should play a part in reducing the speed of COVID-19 transmission, and it gives our academic community time to prepare for a full transition to online learning and assessment for our students from the start of next term.

We are acutely aware that for many students, this decision poses significant challenges. For some, returning home or leaving campus is not an option, while for others, learning online next term will only be possible with access to the University’s computers and internet. As many of you will already know, a lack of regular contact with friends, colleagues and classmates can quickly lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety.

The University remains open, with core facilities, staff support and regular communications available to students and staff who need them. Our Student Hardship Fund, to which alumni have generously given in the past, will be used to provide financial support to all students that need it in these unprecedented times.

Alumni events

This week, we also made the decision to postpone our programme of alumni events for the remainder of the academic year. Again, this decision was not easy for the University: our alumni events are some of the highlights of our calendar. But as with the decisions we have made to protect the wellbeing of our students and staff, so with these and other University events we are following the latest advice from the UK Government to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Staying connected

During these times, when many of us will be using digital tools to communicate and interact more than ever before, I would encourage you to join us on Bristol Connects. If you haven’t yet set up your account for this online Bristol community, it’s quick and simple to do so. Within the space, you can connect with other Bristol graduates and current students, either to offer or benefit from careers advice; find old friends; and make new connections in your professional sector or area of the world.

Bristol’s fundamental research into COVID-19

I’d like to close by highlighting some of the critical research into COVID-19 that is taking place at the University of Bristol, and the impact that your generous support is already having on this work.

Dr David Matthews and Dr Andrew Davidson of the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine are one of just two University research teams in the UK who are working with Public Health England to grow SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. You may have seen the work of their team covered recently by the BBC on Newsnight on 5 March. Their work to understand the pathogenesis of the virus – how it causes disease, and how it interacts with our bodies – is critical to the development of diagnostic tools, drugs and vaccines to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to gifts from Bristol’s alumni community, we have been able to provide immediate funding for a new incubator for Drs Matthews and Davidson’s research. In addition, your generosity has enabled the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, based at Bristol, to act rapidly in providing funding for new research into COVID-19 that is taking place across the University.

Supporting our research and students

We are so grateful to count on the support of our alumni for this critical work. If you would like to donate to our research on COVID-19, or indeed to help students experiencing the financial impact of the pandemic, you can do so by donating online, or by contacting Rob Grimes in the Development and Alumni Relations Office.

Here at Bristol, we are thinking of you all as you and your families face this unprecedented challenge. I know that you will also be thinking of the friends that you made during your time here at the University. Please keep in touch with us and with each other, and I look forward very much to seeing you in the future.