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Why a collaborative research culture is needed to address the COVID-19 challenge

With scientists around the world mobilised to use their skills to help fight COVID-19, institutional and international cooperation is key, says Queen’s leading haematologist Professor Ken Mills. Has the landscape of global research changed forever?

With a third of the world’s population on some form of lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global race to find treatments and therapies to fight the SARS-CoV2 virus is on. However, far from advocating a protectionist method, the research community is adopting a collaborative approach aimed at uniting the skills and knowledge of scientists around the world.

Earlier this month, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Natural Science Foundation (NSFC) of China issued a joint statement highlighting a shared commitment to strengthening global collaborations and encouraging openness and data sharing to help ensure diagnostics, vaccines and prevention measures are developed rapidly for the benefit of every nation.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Tackling coronavirus requires a huge effort from all countries which is why the UK is bringing together the global scientific community to speed up the development of vaccines and treatments.”

Inter-disciplinary collaboration

Professor Ken Mills, an experimental haematologist at The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s University Belfast, is collaborating with Professor Ultan Power, a leading virologist at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine to test existing drugs for activity against SARS-CoV2.

Professor Mills says a collaborative research culture is important now more than ever. 

“Collaborative research is vital to enable the best laboratories and scientists to contribute their skills and expertise without duplicating efforts,” says Professor Mills. “In the current COVID-19 challenge, this is particularly important due to the need for a rapid response.”

At Queen’s, collaboration is high on the research agenda, notes Professor Mills. “This can often involve researchers within the same research centre but from different disciplines, such as molecular biology and radiotherapy, but also cross-centre or cross-school collaborations involving, for example, cancer researchers, medicinal chemists, physicists and informaticians,” he says.

He adds, “The collaboration between The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research and the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine in Queen’s is an example of this, with local collaboration involving different disciplines and collaborators from within Queen’s, as well as across the UK, Europe and USA, offering to contribute essential protocols and reagents.”

Staff member in the CCRCB

Global effort

The collaboration arose following a conversation between Professor Mills and a postdoctoral researcher, Dr Ahlam Ali.  Dr Ali is currently working to identify novel and repurposed drugs to treat paediatric leukaemia. The project involves large-scale screening of drug libraries for possible drug combinations for activity against the disease. Using technology known as “multiplex screening for interacting compounds” (MuSIC), researchers have the ability to scan a ‘library’ of drugs quickly and efficiently.

“We wondered if this approach might be relevant for the COVID-19 challenge, but we had no experience of dealing with viruses.  So, we approached Professor Power and rapidly developed the project.” 

The team secured a National Institute for Health Research grant of close to £300,000 for the project, which will utilise the latest drug screening technology to select suitable anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs to test against the disease.  While this project is being driven by Queen’s, the research team will be coordinating and consulting with relevant experts from around the globe, including collaborators from the US and Spain who are experts on coronavirus in particular.

“We don’t have direct experience of working with SARS-CoV2, so we have specifically set up collaborations with two of the top laboratories in the world working with SARS coronavirus and other coronaviruses,” explains Professor Power. “That is Professor Stanley Perlman in the University of Iowa and Isabel Sola, who is working in Madrid at the National Biotech Centre’s Coronavirus Lab.  These are two of the leading coronavirus labs in the world that we will be collaborating with and they will be providing us with reagents, protocols and advice.”  Professor Mills adds, “Since being awarded the grant, we are also developing collaborations with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Public Health England and researchers across academia and industry.”

With a research focus on paediatric and adult leukaemia, Professor Mills has a long history of collaborative research. “Collaboration is vital to all research projects.  My leukaemia research means local collaboration with clinicians in the Health Trust and scientists with expertise in DNA repair or bioinformatics.   I am also involved in several multi-centred international collaborations, such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) funded HARMONY project, which is bringing together over 70 research laboratories and hospitals to better understand the genetic basis of blood cancers using data from over 30,000 patients. This project will contribute to improved diagnosis and the identification of novel therapies for several different blood cancers.”

Biomedical Science

Protective impulses

There is, of course, tension between a collaborative research culture and others with a protectionist approach.  The former was exemplified by the German biotech company CureVac who gave a press release indicating that they were developing a vaccine to protect people around the world, rather than just one individual country.  

“If a researcher or company identifies a vaccine or reagent against COVID-19, cancer, diabetes, etc. then it would be a major Intellectual Property (IP) and financial coup – the commercial and research sectors are often seeking IP opportunities in research proposals,” says Professor Mills.  “However, as demonstrated by our COVID-19 project, this type of research demands collaboration.  Our collaborators have shown us approaches that we hadn’t foreseen; we have been approached with offers of equipment or reagents from companies and been provided with academic data which is being accelerated and made publicly available.   It seems that in a time of crisis, collaboration and openness is the order of the day and should be wholeheartedly encouraged.”

Embracing new ways of working

Thankfully, advances in technology have made information and data exchange more fluid.

“In such a fast-moving crisis, fluid communication between scientists is essential,” says Professor Mills. “Particularly in the current situation of remote working and self-isolation, the value of communication systems such as TEAMS or Zoom to hold meetings in real time has been invaluable to coordinate and propel research forward,” says Professor Mills.  “It allows plans to be made across multiple sites and locations so that the whole team is involved in the discussions and planning, all of which will enable research to move rapidly forward in this time of uncertainty.”

In fact, it is probable that the research challenges presented by COVID-19 will change the global landscape of research in the future.  “We have been aware of the potential for different ways of communication and data sharing, and we’ve seen a rapid growth in the way that researchers have embraced and utilised novel communication technologies in the most challenging of times,” says Professor Mills

Find out more about the work in Queen’s to find a Coronavirus Treatment