Scientists are carrying out research to try to predict who could become seriously ill from coronavirus by analysing the immune response of patients.
The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) at Porton Down, near Salisbury, is working with Hywel Dda University Health Board and Swansea University in Wales on a pilot study examining randomised blood samples from 30 hospital patients to compare how their immune systems react to the illness.
Evidence suggests some patients become severely ill from Covid-19 after having a massive inflammatory response from their immune system, part of which is often known as a ‘cytokine storm’ which can lead to organ failure and death. But others do not.
Using state of the art tests in Dstl’s laboratories, which are not available in hospitals, the research is looking at the activation of white cells – part of the body’s immune system – and the proteins which are present on their surfaces, using techniques such as flow cytometry which detects and measures physical and chemical characteristics of cells.
The study is in its early stages, with data and findings anticipated in the coming months. But it is hoped this analysis could help answer questions on how and why patients are affected so differently by Covid-19 and potentially even lead to new tests and treatments in future.
Professor Tim Atkins, who coordinates Dstl’s research on coronavirus, said the team was ‘really excited and humbled’ to be involved in the work.
He hopes the research will help put clinicians on ‘the front foot’ to provide them with information that allows them to ‘make early interventions and improve the outcome for patients who get severely ill from Covid.’
He told the PA news agency: ‘What we want to do is play our role in providing data that I guess develops the common scientific understanding of this disease.
‘And that ultimately is used to help patient outcomes to help globally and the United Kingdom fight this pandemic and so that coronavirus no longer represents the threat that it currently does to our way to our way of life.’
Keir Lewis, the health board’s chief investigator and a professor of respiratory medicine at the university’s medical school, described the work as a ‘unique collaboration’ where ‘pooled expertise will better understand a common and deadly enemy’, adding: ‘Working with the research team at Dstl has allowed specialist testing that we wouldn’t normally have.’
Fellow scientists welcomed the research.
Doctor Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the findings of the study could prove ‘extremely helpful’ in learning more about coronavirus, adding: ‘It could be helpful if there is a pre-existing immunity aspect, although we don’t know for sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a very interesting idea… and worth investigating.’
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, said the work could build on several other studies already looking at prognostic markers (used to measure the progress of a disease in a patient), adding: ‘It’s important that we do this (work) in a number of different populations. The more data we can accumulate, the better.’
The project is part of a plethora of studies on coronavirus being carried out by Dstl at its 7,000-acre high-security site in the Wiltshire countryside, including developing equipment such as an artificial finger to check how long the disease can survive on surfaces as well as looking at which disinfectants may be the most effective against it.