Researchers in Scotland are playing their part in drive to defeat Covid-19 – Philip Winn

Diagnostic, clinical, therapeutic and social studies are all being funded by Medical Research Scotland, writes Professor Philip Winn

A clinical support technician extracts viruses from swab samples so that the genetic structure of a virus can be analysed and identified in the coronavirus testing laboratory at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (Picture: Jane Barlow - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
A clinical support technician extracts viruses from swab samples so that the genetic structure of a virus can be analysed and identified in the coronavirus testing laboratory at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (Picture: Jane Barlow - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

To say the least, the global COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge, but not one we’ve shied away from. Pandemics need everyone to play a part, from people following lockdown guidance, through staff in the NHS and essential services staying at work, to medics and scientists striving to treat and understand the disease.

Scotland is playing its part in the drive to beat the SARS-Cov-2 virus responsible for the disease, with world-class research teams working hard to save lives. The importance of funding for medical research has never been clearer.

Medical Research Scotland is Scotland’s largest independent medical research charity. Our mission is to support the best research and, under normal circumstances, our focus is on supporting scientists early in their careers. Our main programme aims to fund at least 15 new four-year PhD studentships every year in Scottish universities, each one in collaboration with an external partner organisation. The awards, each worth over £100,000, deliver terrific research and develop students who have a clear appreciation of how their work might be made useful in the world.

Professor Philip winn, chair of Medical Research Scotland

But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit we quickly added a funding programme to meet the immediate need. We knew that around Scotland there were teams of scientists capable of investigating multiple aspects of the disease, from lab bench to bedside. What they lacked was resources to fuel the science. We developed a scheme to make available quickly £20,000 grants that would let researchers buy the materials they needed to get on with the job.

We funded 21 projects, a total of nearly £360,000 that went to the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, St. Andrews and Strathclyde, as well as at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. The research covers diagnostic, clinical, therapeutic and social studies.

How can we diagnose Covid-19? Researchers aim to produce new testing methods to provide accurate results as well as upgrading existing blood testing to understand better the effectiveness of vaccines and to control and monitor recurring outbreaks.

How does Covid-19 affect people? Clinical studies will investigate why individuals have different symptoms, how the disease progresses in extremely ill patients, how Covid-19 impairs lung function and the effect of ventilation on the heart. Another study will look at people with congenital heart disease – does their pre-existing condition make them vulnerable to the virus and if so, how? We think that this study is the first of its kind in the world.

How to treat it? Teams will look at existing drugs to see whether they have benefit, while other researchers are testing the usefulness of drugs specifically to boost the immune system. A simple, low-cost system capable of rapidly testing hundreds of drugs as potential therapies is also being developed, which will use specially designed cells that change colour depending on how effective potential drugs are at stopping the virus.

It’s not all about the clinic. Researchers are looking at how to develop the clearest Covid-19 messages for the most vulnerable in society, as well as reviewing the effectiveness of messages such as ‘wash your hands’ and ‘stay inside’. Studies will also reflect on the experience of frontline NHS staff working in critical care during the outbreak and lessons that can be learnt about how best to support staff now and in the future.

Scotland can be proud of its scientific community. The research it produces has the potential to help people around the world live longer and healthier lives. The scientific challenges thrown at us by this virus are many and varied but we continue to learn more each week.

As Scotland reopens for business and life starts to feel a bit more normal, we hope that the research we have funded will continue to help make breakthroughs and contribute to global efforts to control the virus.

And of course, while attention has been rightly focused on the pandemic, we know fine well that there is still a need for research into every aspect of health and well-being. Medical Research Scotland will maintain its commitment to delivering that through its support for the brightest and best young scientists.

If you would like to help Medical Research Scotland, please visit our website medicalresearchscotland.org.uk.

Professor Philip Winn is Chair of Medical Research Scotland, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Strathclyde, in the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy & Biomedical Sciences.

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