31 Mar.

How University of Manchester is transforming human genomic testing laboratories to support COVID-19 testing

Testing for COVID-19 is at a premium. Now a genetic testing team based at Saint Mary’s Hospital, part of Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, are looking to adapt lab space and mobilise significant workforce expertise to accelerate testing in the north-west.

The challenge

Testing for COVID-19 to understand who may be carrying the virus and be able to infect others is vitally important across the globe, and requires accelerated testing and expertise.

Investigating a solution

Professor Graeme Black is a clinical professor working in the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health in the field of genomic medicine. He is also the Scientific Director of the north-west genomic laboratory hub. Typically his team’s day-to-day activity is testing for rare diseases, cancer and haematology.

Following the global COVID-19 outbreak, the team are now in discussions with Public Health England (PHE) to adapt their expertise and lab equipment to support the intense and significant need to test people for the coronavirus.

“It’s become clear that testing for COVID-19 is at a level of demand that is significantly above current capacity. We have a large floor space and workforce expertise and we are discussing with PHE how we can support them to accelerate testing in the north-west,” said Professor Black.

“If, collectively, we can put in place sufficient personnel power, laboratory space and technology, we should be able to boost the amount of testing going on in the north-west and hopefully that will help meet the significant need for diagnosis, testing and understanding of who has and who doesn't have COVID-19.”

The pandemic has caused the UK government, along with other countries, to impose strict restrictions on everyday life. With the expertise of more than 250 people from the University and NHS clinicians and laboratory staff, the interdisciplinary team are hoping to support the NHS by boosting the number of tests available and easing bottlenecks.

“We’re examining the ability to convert our space within the hospital into a testing area for PHE. We are working up RNA (ribonucleic acid) viral sequencing analyses and adopting clinical assays. Our development team, which sits between research, industry and the NHS, is currently working on changing our day-to-day activity to provide support capacity.

“PHE have a lot of experience in testing for viral pathogens. Since we don’t, this is pointing us in a direction that is relatively new. We are constantly in contact with PHE to help problem-solve, offer our expertise and understand what we can do to help.”

The interdisciplinary team will still provide testing for cancer and clinical data analysis alongside supporting coronavirus tests.

Find out more

Meet the researcher:

Graeme Black, Professor of Genomics and Ophthalmology, and Academic Scientific Director, North West Genomic Laboratory Hub.

Meet the group:

North West Genomic Laboratory Hub

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