COVID Stories: Dundee scientific expertise refocussed to the pandemic response (Part 1)

Published on 9 June 2020

In 2020 the research landscape across the world has shifted focus to work together to combat COVID-19. In the School of Life Sciences, many of our staff and students, a group that continues to grow, have joined this collective research effort.

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This rapid response has involved our scientists diverting, in many cases, from their regular research projects to provide expertise for creating new tools to analyse the SARS-CoV-2 virus, working with clinical researchers or in some cases helping to coordinate or donating vital scientific equipment to contribute a national testing effort. What has it been like for scientists that have refocussed to work on COVID-19? What has driven the teams undertaking this work and what has lab life been like for the scientists going into the lab during lockdown?

Part 1: MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit

In January 2020, the University of Dundee MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit (MRC-PPU) took the decision to refocus a substantial amount of their resources into new research programmes to help the worldwide research effort to tackle COVID-19.

Dario Alessi
“Research into COVID-19 needs to continue and accelerate much further as this is the only way that we will overcome the current situation.”

Professor Dario Alessi, Director of the MRC-PPU

The 200 scientists, students and technicians working in the Unit study biological processes that underpin cell activity, which if go wrong can cause diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease. They work closely with the pharmaceutical industry to ensure research is translated into effective treatments, with a dedicated department (MRC PPU Reagents and Services) that make all outputs available to researchers working in universities and industry around the world.

Collaboration is key

In early January, as more reports of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 appeared in the scientific literature and across the media, they looked at how they could use their skills to research coronavirus. Dr Paul Davies, General Manager of the MRC-PPU, said “It is important that researchers focus their resources to input to the global efforts in a way that best makes use of their skills and experience. We are not virologists here, but we can collaborate with virologists, bringing our knowledge of protein chemistry and drug development. This collaborative approach will produce results that are greater than the sum of its parts.”

Researchers within the Unit are using their expertise in biochemistry and biophysics to contribute to the global COVID-19 fight, primarily focusing on the development and production of proteins, clones and antibodies as research tools.  These tools are being freely distributed to scientists across the globe to accelerate research in both universities and the pharmaceutical industry and aid the clinical management of COVID-19.

These tools are now available for the scientific community via the Unit’s Coronavirus Toolkit website, in collaboration with the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research.

The Unit has joined the Wellcome and UKRI led a consortium of leading centres of protein engineering and production to create the COVID-19 Protein Portal.

Professor Alessi said, “Our dedicated staff have succeeded in making proteins that recognise each of the proteins that are encoded for by the COVID-19 virus. This has been a monumental effort in these very difficult times.”

Researchers in the Unit are also looking at changes in the biological processes of the cell when attacked by the virus, as well as working to identify existing approved drugs to target the virus and collaborating with researchers across the UK to develop diagnostic tests for the virus.

Team effort

Dr Paul Davies said, “I am enormously proud of how all our staff and students have come together to ensure our Unit is working as effectively as it can during this unprecedented emergency – particularly James Hastie, Rachel Toth and Gary Hunter and the teams in MRC Reagents and Services. I am in awe of the researchers who have stepped up beyond expectations and our admin teams, lab support, specialist technicians and support staff have all been amazing.

We have always been a very collaborative Unit, with many national and international collaborations. As a result of COVID-19, we have formed new partnerships and friendships and I very much hope these continue beyond the current crisis.”

Changes to lab life

Life in the lab has changed for everyone. Many researchers are working from home and for those in the lab new ways of working have been adopted. Meetings and social gatherings are virtual, social distancing measures are in practice within all lab spaces and any work that can be completed at home is undertaken there instead. “At the moment, the School is fairly quiet and when you meet some of your friends the scientific discussion needs to be combined with a warm smile and a nice word. And of course, you have to keep at least 2 meters distance,” explained Virginia De Cesare, Senior Research Associate.

The School of Life Sciences is normally home to a community of hundreds of scientists working in, and moving around, interconnected buildings with communal spaces to get together for breaks and meetings. This environment supports interaction and collaboration. The supportive community and networks have continued, from online yoga to staff pub quizzes. “There is still a community spirit. Fortunately, everybody is in the same boat, so it's relatively easy to reach out and connect with somebody when it's needed,” commented Nicola Goodman, Research Technician.  

Story category Covid, Research