“Researchers are a wonderful resource and many of them want to help,” says Siv Andersson, Professor of Molecular Evolution at Uppsala University and Co-Director of SciLifeLab (Science for Life Laboratory), the national research centre at Karolinska Institute.
She has been involved in allocating funds to 67 different projects about coronavirus and COVID-19 throughout Sweden.
In spring 2020, SciLifeLab restructured its work to focus on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. Back in March, the need for emergency measures was already clear, Andersson relates. She was invited to a Wallenberg Foundation board meeting to present what was then known about the coronavirus.
“They started pondering whether to go in and fund some initiative in the acute situation. Just over a week later, they came back and said they were ready to step in and fund coronavirus testing through SciLifeLab.”
Quite quickly, a lab was set up at Karolinska Institute (KI) for real-time infection testing, with Lars Engstrand as Group Leader.
The Wallenberg Foundations also provided SEK 50 million for allocation to various research projects. Interest among researchers was great, Andersson says.
“We received almost 300 applications, although the call was only open for six days. In the first phase, we mainly approved projects for development of technology and test methods, including antibody tests.”
After the initial funding decision was made on 8 April, the management team reviewed the applications in more detail and divided them into some 10 different areas, with applications examined by experts in the areas concerned. Finally, a total of 67 applications were approved – a quarter from Uppsala University and a quarter from KI, while the rest came from universities all over the country.
The huge interest may be partly explained by many researchers’ ability to reorient their research to focus on the coronavirus, Andersson explains.
“Topics can range from development of new methods of tracking the virus and antibody tests to studies of the sequence evolution and immune system. Or research on drug development and how to track the virus in the environment from wastewater treatment plants,” Andersson says.
“Then there are the biobanks, where we’ve started a special initiative in Huddinge, but also at other universities that are collecting samples we think will be valuable for many years to come.”
SciLifeLab is also establishing a COVID-19 data portal where research data can be disseminated and passed on to a European data portal.
‘Already, a huge number of scientific studies have immediately been made available online so that other researchers can benefit from the results.
“In this kind of crisis, you’ve got to work like this. At the same time, it means that the research isn’t quality-assured; instead, we’re in the middle of the research process. As a researcher you know that, but clearly it may be a bit confusing for the public – what the truth is, and the meaning of a research finding that may not have been thoroughly and critically reviewed,” Andersson says.
As a member of SciLifeLab’s management, she has been at the centre of events and her days have been filled with meetings, discussions and coordination.
“It’s been different and unlike anything I’ve done in my 40 years as a researcher. We’ve had a completely different way of working and at the same time massive media interest.”
Since 2017, Andersson has been Co-Director of SciLifeLab. This national research centre has existed for almost a decade and recently developed strategies for the next 10 years. They include investing heavily on the IT side to make better use of all the data generated through the SciLifeLab infrastructure.
“More expertise is needed in data management, in purely practical terms – in various systems, methods and software – but also in extracting knowledge from data. We believe there’s a great need to educate the next generation about that.”
She herself has researched DNA analysis for 40 years and seen working methods change “unimaginably, indescribably much”.
“It really is like science fiction. There was no way to predict this development would happen, and now it’s taken for granted.”
When she started out as a researcher, she used to sit in the library and copy out entire DNA sequences. Today, simply taking and submitting samples are all it takes to generate vastly more information than used to be possible. Afterwards, the real work of finding the pearls of wisdom in all the data begins.
“You need to understand in enough depth to be able to make something from the results you get – so that they actually become new knowledge and not just statistics. Research is something of an art. Science is thought to be so technical, but there’s an extremely strong creative element in it.”
In six months’ time, Andersson will leave her post as Co-Director and return full-time to her research group of about 10. The subject of the research is sequence evolution, to understand DNA and how it changes over time.
“Over the years, I’ve used various bacteria to study that. Right now, I’m focusing on two groups. One is lactic-acid bacteria in bees, studying individual cells to understand how DNA changes at population level. The second is a group of bacteria with rather complicated cell structure.”
The group is seeking to understand how a cell can go from being very simple to getting some form of structure. The researchers use many different techniques, notably bioinformatics, which in combination can give an idea of how it may have happened.
So there’s a lot left to explore?
“Vast amounts. You learn how incredibly little, still, we understand. We can’t even describe the exact workings of the simplest little bacterium, which is quite remarkable. We can make self-driving cars, but we don’t even understand how the absolutely simplest cell works,” Andersson says.
“We’re seeing that now, too, with the coronavirus outbreak. It’s a small piece of RNA of 30,000 bases – practically nothing. How can such a tiny RNA fragment threaten to completely destroy our civilisation? It’s really incomprehensible.”
Facts: Siv Andersson
Name: Siv Andersson.
Title: Professor of Molecular Evolution, Co-Director at SciLifeLab.
In my spare time: Skiing, cycling, running and swimming, depending on the season. I’ve done the Swedish Classic (a kind of quadrathlon, with four different long-distance races in one year) several times, and still train according to that cycle. And I meet my grandchildren too.
Latest read book: “Nobel: The Enigmatic Alfred” (Nobel: den gåtfulle Alfred, hans värld och hans pris), by Ingrid Carlberg.
Favourite dish: I like crispbread with cheese.
Hidden talent: I haven’t had time to find out whether I have one!
Get my best ideas: In the car, when I’m not thinking about anything in particular, I come up with all kinds of things I should do.
Driving force as a researcher: I want to understand, and as soon as I start unravelling something, lots of questions crop up, and then I just have to find out. I don’t think I’ve had a long-term plan other than understanding how things are connected, how they work and why. I suppose I’m a curiosity-driven researcher. It’s been highly enjoyable doing something useful now, but curiosity is really what drives me.
Role model: No, no one in particular. There are many people I appreciate in various ways, but no real role model.