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Sheffield immunologists part of unprecedented national effort to search for answers on Covid-19

04 Sep 2020

Three new UK-wide studies will receive £8.4 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to understand immune responses to the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

The largest of these is the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC), which receives £6.5 million in funding. It will bring together scientists at the University of Sheffield with immunologists at 16 other UK universities to investigate the following:

  • How long does immunity from Covid-19 last?
  • Why are some people’s immune systems better able to fight off the virus?
  • Why do some people’s immune responses cause damage, especially to the lungs?
  • How does the virus ‘hide’ from the immune system and how can this be tackled?
  • Does immunity to previous infection with seasonal coronaviruses (which cause the common cold) alter a person’s outcome with SARS-CoV-2?

Specifically, the Sheffield team will study two main areas:

  • How the body’s immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2 and why some people suffer severe, life-threatening Covid-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections, but can still transmit the virus. They will examine the role of circulating immune cells called myeloid cells – and why they can sometimes trigger the disruption of blood vessels in tissues like the lung and brain, causing major complications.
  • How T cells, a type of lymphocyte which develops in the thymus gland and plays a central role in the immune response, contribute to immunity to the virus to prevent re-infection, how long this persists and if re-infection does occur, whether this is due to immunity waning or because the virus can ‘escape’ from this response.

The contribution of the University of Sheffield to UK-CIC reflects the notable expertise across the University in both myeloid and T cell biology, and infectious diseases.

Together, it is hoped the studies of the UK-CIC will significantly improve our understanding of this new virus and thus treatment outcomes for patients. They may also inform the development of vaccines and new therapies for Covid-19.

The project will use samples and data from major UK Covid-19 projects already underway, and funded by UKRI and NIHR, including ISARIC-4C (characterising and following more than 75,000 hospitalised patients with Covid-19) and the genomic studies COG-UK (sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes) and GenOMICC (sequencing the genomes of people with Covid-19).

The Sheffield team is led by Professor Claire Lewis from the Department of Oncology and Metabolism and Professor Sarah Rowland-Jones, Dr Thushan de Silva and Professor Endre Kiss-Toth from the Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease.

Claire Lewis, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Pathology at the University of Sheffield, said: “We are delighted to be able to contribute to this exciting new immunology consortium. Pooling our expertise and resources in this way will accelerate our understanding of how this coronavirus affects the immune system, and thus how we can defeat it.”

The University of Sheffield has a rich heritage of pioneering research to fight infectious disease. In 1941 Sir Howard Florey, former Chair of Pathology at the University of Sheffield, conducted the first ever clinical trials of penicillin – a drug which would go on to save more than 82 million lives worldwide.

Pooling our expertise and resources in this way will accelerate our understanding of how this coronavirus affects the immune system, and thus how we can defeat it

Professor Claire Lewis, University of sheffield

Dr Thushan de Silva, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Infectious Diseases at the University of Sheffield, said: “We are excited to be working with colleagues across the consortium to characterise the nature and durability of immunity after Covid-19. This work will be key to understanding what immune responses are important in protecting people from re-infection as we move into the next phases of the pandemic.”

The UK-CIC consortium is led nationally by Professor Paul Moss at the University of Birmingham, who said: “The UK is a world leader in immunology research and it’s an honour to lead this consortium to deliver a coordinated and agile national research programme to build our knowledge of this disease, which will translate into meaningful benefits for patients. There is so much that we still need to learn about how the novel coronavirus interacts with our immune systems and, with this investment, we have a unique opportunity to answer these key questions and hasten effective pandemic control.”

The Humoral Immune Correlates of Covid-19 (HICC) consortium will receive £1.5 million to study the humoral immune response – molecules produced by the immune system to fight infection, including antibodies. They will focus on two groups: NHS workers – in collaboration with SIREN – to track immunity over 12 months, and hospitalised patients.

Both the UK-CIC and HICC have been given urgent public health research status by the Department of Health and Social Care to prioritise their delivery by the health and care system.

The third study will specifically focus on the key features of fatal Covid-19 and the impact the virus has upon the lungs and other vital organs. The project, titled ‘Inflammation in Covid-19: Exploration of Critical Aspects of Pathogenesis’, or ICECAP, will receive £394,000.

Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR, Professor Chris Whitty, said: “Understanding how our immune systems respond to Covid-19 is key to solving some of the important questions about this new disease, including whether those who have had the disease develop immunity and how long this lasts, and why some are more severely affected.

“This investment by the NIHR and UKRI will help immunology experts to discover how our immune systems respond to SARS-CoV-2, including our T cell response. This is vital information to help prevent and treat the disease.”

These studies build on the UK’s world-class expertise and capability in global health and infectious disease that has already shaped our understanding of the pandemic and is informing measures to tackle it.

The full list of research institutions include the University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge and Wellcome Sanger Institute, UCL, King’s College London, Imperial College London, University of Liverpool, University of Manchester, Newcastle University, University of Oxford, University of Sheffield, University of York, Cardiff University, University of Dundee, University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow and the Bradford Institute for Health Research.

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