500 scientists, including University of Warwick, to map COVID-19 effects and treatments in patients’ blood

· A researcher from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick is in a new collaboration of more than 500 scientists from around the world using mass spectrometry to examine people’s blood and biomarkers

· The coalition hope to identify how coronavirus molecules are structured in patient’s blood by measuring the molecules to determine what they are and where

· They hope to refine testing approaches, stratify treatment options, determine isolation requirements and bring in needed measurement aspects of novel therapeutic development programmes – for Covid-19 and future threats.

A new coalition of more than 500 scientists from around the world, including the University of Warwick, has been created to share data on COVID-19 gleaned from the use of mass spectrometry techniques which examine people’s blood and other biomarkers.

Announced in the Lancet today, and coordinated from The University of Manchester, the COVID-19 MS Coalition is made up of many of the world’s leading mass spectrometry experts who will work together to look at the ways in which the novel coronavirus is present in patients’ blood and examine in detail how the virus is structured.

The aim is to refine testing approaches, stratify treatment options, determine isolation requirements and bring much needed speed into measurement aspects of novel therapeutic development programmes – for COVID-19 and future threats.

Mass spectrometry (MS) is able to measure molecules that change in a patient’s blood as the infection takes hold. It can be used to find out what they are, and how many of them there are.

These measurements provide precise and reproducible diagnostic data at the molecular level that can complement information from genomic studies.

The coalition partners are also looking for biomarkers that will determine how a given individual will respond to the virus. These allow hospital labs to predict the outcome of the disease and to target treatment accordingly. By finding the biological pathways that alter as the disease takes hold, and considering genetic risk factors, mass spectrometry will provide crucial evidence as to why people respond differently

Mass spectrometry will be also be able to help develop effective treatments by targeted studies that measure the decrease in these markers.

The researchers will also attempt to define the precise structure of the viral spike protein and other antigens. Mass spectrometry is the only method that can map the complex sugar network that coats the surface of the viral spike protein and the human receptor. Coalition partners are working to see which parts of the virus are involved in the interaction with cells, and how this interaction allows the virus to open and drop the infective RNA into the human host. This detailed mapping of the interaction is vital in the development of vaccines, designed to be a weaker form of the virus.

Professor Peter O’Connor, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick comments:

“Mass spectrometry is a key tool for testing and understanding this virus, in terms of detecting it in biological fluids such as sputum, mouthwash, or blood, but also in terms of understanding what the proteins are doing as the virus adapts to its environment and on the systemic effects of viral infection on blood metabolites. Our tools have the sensitivity, specificity, and resolution to help in understanding and controlling this pandemic, and the entire community is keen to help. At Warwick, we’ll be focused on applying our advanced mass spectrometry tools to accurate analysis of the proteins, particularly the surface spike protein, including the post-translational modifications and glycans that dominate the protein-protein interaction surface. We are also keen to see if simpler methods like MALDI could be used in detection as these tools are common in clinical laboratories.

“A key feature of this coalition is that it has critical input from clinical laboratories with ongoing collaborations and sampling centres at the hospitals and with biosafety level 3 laboratories which can handle the patient samples and render the virus inert and safe to be handled by a wider range of laboratories. These laboratories are in the process of up-skilling everyone and helping with risk-assessments and safety procedures so that these samples can be analysed safely with the most advanced tools available.”

Professor Perdita Barran, Director of the Michael Barber Centre for Collaborative Mass Spectrometry, at The University of Manchester, was inspired along with her colleague Professor Clare Mills to develop the coalition, when her labs were closed during March.

Professor Barran said: “By cooperating in this way, the scientists working in the coalition will have access to many more sources of data from around the world. We will be pooling our expertise and we believe we will be able to work much faster and have an impact on a range of priorities; from testing, to treatment and vaccination.”

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