More than 150 participants recruited to new COVID-19 research programme

A library of valuable biological samples from people with COVID-19, which will help scientists globally fight the virus, has recruited 150 participants.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) BioResource began collecting samples at the end of March from patients admitted to Addenbrooke’s hospital with suspected COVID-19. Samples included blood, nasal and throat swabs, plus a mental and physical health questionnaire.

The biological samples are carefully separated, analysed and stored as part of a resource for scientists to draw upon when researching treatments, vaccinations or a deeper understanding of COVID-19.

The NIHR BioResource will now seek further participants to join the new NIHR COVID-19 BioResource cohort. All hospital patients in Addenbrooke’s and The Royal Papworth Hospital with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 are invited to take part in this essential research. NHS staff undergoing routine screening for the COVID-19 infection will also be invited to participate in the study.

Up until now, local samples have mainly been collected in Cambridge, and processed in a specialist lab in the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre. Over the next few weeks, local NIHR BioResource centres across England will be able to begin recruiting from other hospitals.

Close up of blood samples in tubes and racks with lab record writing

Sample collection

Since the initiative launched in March, the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource has collected samples from more than 150 participants, including patients with COVID-19 and NHS staff who are either asymptomatic or with mild symptoms who had been self-isolating at home as a precaution. Collection of samples from NHS staff in addition to patients allows the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource to safely collect samples from participants with the full range of symptoms experienced from COVID-19, while contributing to the essential COVID-19 screening of NHS staff.

Dr Nathalie Kingston, Director of the NIHR BioResource said: “Since the outbreak, leading experts across the world are coming together to collaborate in joint research projects to help slow down and halt the disease, the NIHR BioResource is no exception.

“Working with our current structure, we have created a new resource where we can easily recruit patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and clinical staff working in the NHS. We can then track the disease progression during the participant’s recovery as well as understand any changes to their mental health. We will then be able to harness and use the information for future research trials and improve our knowledge of the disease.

“We have a special interest in enrolling patients under 40 who are admitted to hospital, to better understand their immune response. We will also be working alongside paediatrics intensive care units across the country to enrol patients under the age of 16 and their parents.

“The NIHR COVID-19 BioResource doesn’t prevent anyone from taking part in other research studies for COVID-19. There are many national research studies taking place and we need as much information as possible if we are going to tackle this disease.”

How the NIHR BioResource helps research

The NIHR BioResource is a nationwide platform that supports research in a number of health conditions. It brings patients, as well as healthy volunteers, who want to take part in research together with researchers who need volunteers to take part in studies. Currently, there are over 150,000 people with or without conditions who have consented to be approached to participate in research.

The NIHR COVID-19 BioResource offers patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and clinical staff an opportunity to provide their biological samples for the purposes of research. Healthy volunteers are also able to sign up without providing a sample but can consent to take part and will complete a health questionnaire. They will then be invited to provide their sample at a later date when restrictions are lifted and when it is safe to do so.

Researchers will use the information to support current and future research into understanding the disease, including finding new treatments and why some people experience mild symptoms but others are more serious.

Principle Investigator Professor Ken Smith from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease will be analysing the samples collected from Cambridge to understand how the immune responds to the virus.

Professor Smith said: “By understanding more about participants’ immune response to the virus, we hope to find out why some people get severe, and indeed life-threatening, COVID-19 while others have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.

“This information will help in the development of effective vaccines and may help doctors to identify people who are more at risk of severe symptoms before they are infected.”

Dr Michael Weekes, Honorary Consultant in infectious diseases, whose primary research focuses on how our cells defend themselves from viruses, is trying to identify people most at risk of severe COVID-19. Dr Weekes said: “We have been studying blood samples from participants of the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource for use with a technique called ‘proteomics’.

“This is where we analyse which proteins are present on the surface of white blood cells from patients with severe or milder forms of COVID-19. This will help us determine when a patient is admitted to hospital with COVID-19 if it is likely they will need to be treated in the intensive care unit.

“We are also looking at healthcare workers who have experienced mild symptoms of COVID-19, or even who have had the virus without any symptoms at all. Staff who have signed up to the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource have provided a small sample of blood to be analysed. This research will help us understand how our body defends itself against the virus, and identify who is most at risk of developing severe COVID-19.”

Take part without being an inpatient

People who have had mild COVID-19 symptoms or have not been affected with the virus can still get involved in research. Currently, there is no way of safely collecting biological samples from a non-hospital setting. However, people can still contact the NIHR BioResource to volunteer for research in other ways, such as taking surveys.

The NIHR COVID-19 BioResource is encouraging more participants who have been hospitalised with COVID-19 to sign up to the research programme. The more samples collected, the more chance researchers can understand the disease and discover new treatments.

First published on 13 May 2020.