The Babraham Institute’s contribution to the COVID-19 response

The Babraham Institute’s contribution to the COVID-19 response

Key points:

  • The Institute’s immunology researchers apply their expertise to learn more about the immune system’s response to COVID-19, including the link between age and the severity of the disease.
  • The Institute has also been supporting the region’s and UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic through the donation of scrubs to healthcare workers, supply of lab consumables and through the individual efforts of researchers contributing to national research efforts.
  • Work ongoing at the Institute at the moment investigates the immune response to COVID-19 in young and old mice to understand why older people are more vulnerable to the disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the importance of biological research to equip scientists and healthcare professionals with the knowledge they need to understand and treat disease, including understanding the different risk factors associated with outcomes and effective ways to reduce transmission. The Babraham Institute is an international leader in understanding immune system development, how the body responses to vaccination and infection, and how the function of the immune system declines with age. Researchers from the Institute’s Immunology research programme are active in current efforts to understand COVID-19. Here’s how:

What is happening in patients with COVID-19?
Group leader Professor Adrian Liston is building on past experience in systems immunology to work out what is going wrong in patients with COVID-19. This approach allows immune profiles to be developed for each individual, and allows insight into immunological variation. As part of an ongoing clinical trial, the Liston lab is analysing changes in the immune system in intensive care patients with COVID-19 or other respiratory infections. This work may help identify the immune factors that cause severe illness.

Why do older people respond poorly to vaccines?
The older members of our communities are more likely to experience severe health consequences after respiratory infection, and COVID-19 is no exception. Group leader Dr Michelle Linterman and her team have been investigating why the immune systems of older individuals do not respond as effectively to vaccines (news item 26 March: How to boost immune response to vaccines in older people and the research paper published in eLife). The Linterman lab is collaborating with the University of Oxford to understand how their COVID-19 vaccine stimulates immunity in aged mice.

Do oxygen levels matter during respiratory infections?
People with underlying health issues, such as respiratory disease, are at greater risk from COVID-19. Lung disease can result in tissues within the body becoming oxygen deprived, or hypoxic. Group leader Dr Sarah Ross, and her team are investigating how oxygen levels regulate the activation and function of immune cells. These molecular studies aim to identify therapeutic approaches to boost the immune system to fight respiratory infections effectively. 

Developing a new strategy for combatting respiratory infections
Professor Adrian Liston and his team are also researching a population of white blood cells that live in the lung. These cells are capable of efficiently shutting down excessive inflammation. Using mouse models housed at our gold-standard animal research facility, the team is working on a new therapeutic approach to harness these cells to protect against an overreaction of the body’s immune system during coronavirus infection.

Supporting external COVID-19 research efforts and the NHS
More widely across the Institute, teams are doing what they can to help. Researchers across all three of our strategic research programmes are volunteering at the Centre for Biomedical Services in Milton Keynes, for the government’s programme to analyse swab samples to support the national effort against the coronavirus pandemic. Medically-trained researchers are working in the clinic to support NHS activities. The Institute also contributed protective nitriles gloves to the School of Clinical Medicine within Addenbrookes Hospital and the Institute’s animal facility donated 100 sets of scrubs to the Cambridge Clinical Research Centre for use in their COVID-19 research projects.

Engaging the public to fight COVID-19
Professor Adrian Liston and head of the Institute’s Bioinformatics facility Dr Simon Andrews have joined forces to develop an interactive online simulator ‘Virus Break’ that models viral outbreaks. The simulator is playable as an interactive website, and lets the user explore different scenarios during an outbreak, from allowing the infection run its natural course to implementing social distancing. The experience lets members of the general public discover for themselves just how effective social distancing can be, and what a game-changer vaccines make.

Professor Adrian Liston and the researcher and illustrator Dr Sonia Agüera-Gonzalez (Tenmei) have produced an illustrated book for children ‘All about coronavirus’, explaining what coronavirus is, how it makes us sick, and why we are in lockdown. The book is free on issuu and is available in English, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and French.

 

Notes to Editors

Press contact
Dr Louisa Wood, Communications Manager, Babraham Institute, louisa.wood@babraham.ac.uk

Image description
Professor Adrian Liston (standing) and his team in the lab.

Additional/related resources:
News item 19 March: Institute's response to the coronavirus pandemic
News item 26 March: How to boost immune response to vaccines in older people
All about coronavirus - an illustrated book for children, available free on issuu and available in English, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and French.
Virus Break online simulator modelling disease outbreaks (for educational purposes only) with a variety of diseases, infection rates and management strategies.

Animal research statement
As a publicly funded research institute, the Babraham Institute is committed to engagement and transparency in all aspects of its research. The research presented here includes that involving the use of mice. Please follow the link for further details of our animal research and our animal welfare practices.

About the Babraham Institute
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.