University coordinates worldwide research into COVID-19 treatments

Prof Perdita Barran

Manchester University is coordinating a worldwide coalition of more than 500 scientists to share data on COVID-19.

The information is from the use of mass spectrometry techniques which examine people’s blood and other biomarkers.

Announced in The Lancet today, 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.

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

Prof 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.”