The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic and its rapid spread throughout the world, with an immense impact in Europe, has been the greatest global health challenge we have faced so far.
Even as restrictions are loosening in many parts of the world including Europe, COVID-19 continues to be a threat and researchers are using their know-how and talent to better understand how the virus works, and to design new methods to quickly diagnose patients, antiviral treatments to help those infected, and vaccines to help prevent future outbreaks.
BIST researchers have been fighting coronavirus from the very beginning, by participating in generous social initiatives and donations, as well as launching several research projects in extensive international collaborations to help us overcome this pandemic and to prepare ways to avoid future threats. These efforts will continue to be ongoing as we move into new phases of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 projects currently underway by BIST researchers are the following:
Compact devices to detect COVID-19 instantly
The coronavirus pandemic frequently raises life or death questions such as whether a patient requires respiratory therapy immediately or should be kept in hospital with less invasive treatment. New data suggests that microvasculature (the blood vessels that perfuse the body’s tissues) plays a key role in how the COVID-19 disease evolves.
Prof. Turgut Durduran, an ICREA Research Professor at ICFO (a BIST centre) and winner of a 2020 BIST Ignite Award, and his team have customised commercial, near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) devices to help physicians get a detailed evaluation of a patient’s microvasculature. The unit is placed on a patient’s forearm and shows changes in their microvascular blood oxygenation to help determine whether aggressive respiratory therapy is needed. The project has grown into an international consortium named HEMOCOVID-19 involving ten partners in four countries (Spain, USA, Brazil, and Mexico) and ICFO has partnered with Hospital Parc Taulí to lead the initiative together.More about research at ICFO
Using light to disinfect indoor spaces
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is posing an extraordinary challenge that requires swift worldwide action for the massive deployment of affordable and ready-to-apply measures to drastically reduce its transmission probabilities. This includes the need for disinfecting indoor spaces to facilitate the eventual return to conventional activities such as working at the office, going to school, or even attending entertainment events.
At The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), a BIST centre, a study was recently published in ACS Nano by ICREA Professor Javier García de Abajo (winner of a 2016 BIST Ignite Grant) and collaborators from Universitat Pompeu Fabra, University Rovira i Virgili, University of the Basque Country, Technion, and University of Southampton, in which they surveyed the possible methods for preventing SARS-CoV-2 propagation in indoor spaces. Following this survey, they advocate for one measure they believe to be particularly efficient, easily deployable, and economically affordable: virus inactivation by ultraviolet light.More about research at ICFO
Studying COVID-19 and Down syndrome
A main pillar of the fight against COVID-19 is protecting those members of society that are most vulnerable to the disease. A new study has been launched in Catalonia by the Trisomy 21 Research Society to better understand the risk of coronavirus infection in people with Down syndrome and to provide appropriate recommendations to doctors and society in general.
Prof. Mara Dierssen (leader of the Cellular and Systems Neurobiology Group at the Centre for Genomic Regulation, a BIST centre) leads the study, which aims to find out whether COVID-19 affects people with Down syndrome more intensely, what treatments have been most effective, and how many cases there are to date. Getting more insight into these factors will help inform medical staff about how to best treat patients. The project is a massive international collaboration with institutes and clinics from Spain, the US, Asia, Latin America, and other European countries, and will continue collecting data for as long as new cases of COVID-19 come in.Know more about the research at CRG
Putting computing resources at the service of COVID-19 research
Proteins are molecular machines that perform many functions we associate with life. Much like any other machine, it is how a protein’s components (atoms) are arranged and move that determine the protein’s function. Viruses have proteins they use to bypass our immune systems and reproduce themselves. To help tackle the new coronavirus, the project Folding@home is marshalling computing resources to run simulations to help scientists understand how these viral proteins work and how we can design therapeutics to stop them.
The Port d’Informació Científica (PIC), a research facility managed by the High Energy Physics Institute (IFAE), a BIST centre, is participating in the Folding@home project in the framework of its collaboration in the CERN’s ‘Fighting against COVID-19’ working group.More about PIC services and projects
Massive screening of COVID-19
Knowing the true extent of infection with the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus has been is essential for designing the necessary measures to tackle the pandemic and establishing the public health strategy for when confinement restrictions loosen, as they currently are. To this end, the Government of Catalonia launched the Orfeu Programme for mass screening using PCR tests, in which three of the BIST centres participate.
The Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) coordinated a task force with the Centro Nacional de Análisis Genómico (CNAG-CRG), part of the CRG, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) and the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC). These carried out more than 20,000 PCR tests as of May 22, 2019. The Orfeu programme announced at the end of May that it would not roll out a second phase of the project because its tests appear to no longer be needed to supplement the health care system. More details can be found here.
Standardising COVID-19 data analysis
Scientists are working day and night to better understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, so that they can find its weak spots and fight it. An immense amount of scientific data is being published around the world as scientists expand their research more and more. However, some of the technologies used to study SARS-CoV-2, such as nanopore RNA sequencing, are so new that the results of one paper aren’t comparable to another due to the patchwork of different standards and methodologies used and the fact that scientists and clinicians currently lack systematic guidelines for the reproducible analysis of the data, thereby limiting the vast potential of the technology.
Prof. Eva Novoa, leader of the Epitranscriptomics and RNA Dynamics Group at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), a BIST centre, has developed, along with her research group, MasterOfPores, a computer programme to standardise the analysis of publicly available SARS-CoV-2 nanopore sequencing data. The programme, which has been featured in Frontiers in Genetics, is free to use and publicly available and will help researchers more quickly and accurately study how different variations of the virus grow, mutate, and make proteins.
Link to resource: https://covid.crg.euKnow more about the research at CRG
Accelerating the detection of SARS-CoV-2
One of the main challenges we face right now is having rapid diagnostic systems that allow us to detect people infected with COVID-19 and isolate them to reduce the spread of the pandemic. This is the objective pursued by various European teams —of the University of Barcelona, the University of Marseille, the Italian National Institute of Infectious Diseases (INMI), and the ICN2, a BIST centre—, which are working together on developing a nanodevice that will detect the new coronavirus in just 30 minutes.
Prof. Laura Lechuga, CSIC Research Professor at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), where she leads the Nanobiosensors and Bioanalytical Applications Group, is leading and coordinating the CONVAT project, with funding from the European Commission and the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation. CONVAT will develop a point-of-care platform for rapid diagnosis and monitoring of coronavirus. The biosensor device will also allow for the analysis of different types of coronavirus present in reservoir animals, such as bats, to monitor the evolution of these viruses and prevent future infectious outbreaks in humans.Know more about the research at ICN2
Bioinformatics to identify available treatments
Screening and identifying molecules that could work against the virus using advanced modelling and computing techniques is one of the strategies to find rapidly effective treatments for COVID-19. If these molecules are already approved drugs to treat other diseases or are being tested in ongoing clinical trials, they can be accessible for patients faster.
Prof. Patrick Aloy, leader of the Structural Bioinformatics and Network Biology Group at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona), a BIST centre, and ICREA Research Professor, is participating in the project RiPCoN (Rapid interaction profiling of 2019-nCoV for network-based deep drug-repurpose learning), led by the Institute of Network Biology (INET), in Neuherberg (Germany), with the participation of the INSERM (Marseille, France), and funded by the European Comission. The project involves a computational study of the interactions between coronavirus and human cells, with the aim of identifying drugs that are already on the market or in trials and that could halt the spread of the virus.Know more about the research at IRB Barcelona
Artificial intelligence to speed up the search for drugs against COVID-19
The Structural Bioinformatics and Network Biology Laboratory led by ICREA professor Patrick Aloy has also established a collaboration with the Amazon Search Science and AI group to develop a computational tool that will speed up the search for drugs against COVID-19. The aim is using artificial intelligence to generate a drug database that includes all the published scientific results related to the treatment of the disease.
Results are already available at https://sbnb.irbbarcelona.org/covid19/.Know more about the research at IRB Barcelona
The kidneys as a COVID-19 infection pathway
An international team of researchers is looking for ways to stop coronavirus from replicating and affecting other cells once the human body is infected. The team is studying human kidney cells because, next to the lungs, the kidney is the organ most affected by coronavirus. The use of lab-produced kidney tissue, or organelles, can speed up the study of how COVID-19 enters the kidneys and the ways it can lead to kidney pathologies and deduce whether the same pathways are also affecting patients’ lungs. The project has already allowed to identify a drug that blocks the effects of SARS-Co-V2, which can be tested on two hundred Covid-19 patients as of today. The results have been published in the prestigious journal Cell (DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.04.004).
Prof. Núria Montserrat, Leader of the Pluripotency for Organ Regeneration Group at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), a BIST centre, and ICREA Research Professor, has specialized in the generation and study of kidney organelles. This expertise was sought by the international team, made up of research groups in Sweden, Canada, Austria, and France.Know more about the research at IBEC