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Research projects at University of Limerick funded under COVID-19 Rapid Response Call

Mon, 14 Dec 2020

Three research projects at University of Limerick have been funded under the COVID-19 Rapid Response Call announced today.

Ministers today announced details of new investment of €10.5 million in 39 COVID-19 research and innovation projects. Nine of the research projects will be undertaken as part of a collaborative all-Ireland research partnership supported by an additional £1.29 million from the Department for the Economy and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland.

The research projects are part of a coordinated COVID-19 Rapid Response Research, Development and Innovation programme with projects supported by Science Foundation Ireland, in partnership with the Department for the Economy and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and the Irish Research Council and Health Research Board.

UL’s Professor Paul Murray, Professor Orla Muldoon and Professor Tofail Syed received funding worth upwards of €730,000 in today’s announcement.

Professor Syed will receive €264,204 for his project ‘Antiviral fabrics for masks and gowns (Anti-Fab)’. Professor Muldoon will receive €152,847 for her project ‘Maximising social solidarity and trust in public health messaging in the misinformation era’. And Professor Murray will receive €310,082 for his project ‘DISECT: Deep Immunophenotyping combined with Spatial profiling and integrated RNA sequencing to Explain the Complex Tissue pathophysiology of COVID-19’ (more details below).

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, TD, said: “I’m delighted to announce this significant investment into furthering our understanding of COVID-19 and finding solutions to the challenges the pandemic has presented to our society and economy. As we move closer to commencing a vaccination programme, we need to understand that the virus has not gone away – supporting our expert researchers in our higher education institutions will help us to safely reopen our society.

“This latest research also includes nine all-island research projects, which is really exciting. COVID-19 does not know any borders. Working together across this island will help us in our fight.”

Welcoming the investment, Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, TD, said: “Research has been a key part of our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and we will continue to rely on research in the months ahead.

“This year, we have not just experienced a pandemic, we have also seen an infodemic. There has been an overload of often unreliable information. We have seen examples of this in relation to the use of vaccines and on unproven medicines. As we plan to introduce a COVID-19 vaccination programme, it is essential that we tackle things like misinformation. Many of these research projects will provide evidence to help us do that.

“I look forward to using the findings from this research for the benefit of Irish people, the health system and society.”

Commenting on the awards, Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General Science Foundation Ireland, and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, said: “We have been faced with incredible challenges in our society and economy over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 Rapid Response Research and Innovation programme was developed to ensure we could bring together the research expertise to provide solutions to the problems created by the pandemic.

“The programme has been delivered by a high level of interagency and higher education institutional collaboration both within Ireland and with Northern Ireland. Today’s announcement builds on the previous investment and will continue to support research projects that will generate solutions to the many challenges presented by the pandemic.”

Commenting on the projects supported by the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland, the Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, said: “This virus knows no frontiers and it is vital that the world-class research strengths of Northern Ireland universities are fully harnessed to address the common challenges we are all now facing right across this island, north and south.

“Collaboration between researchers promotes innovative and impactful outcomes and this has been underlined by the way the global science community has come together to address the threats and opportunities posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This SFI programme is very much part of this wider global effort and I welcome the opportunity it has provided for added-value collaboration across both our jurisdictions.”

More detail on the UL projects:

Founding professor of psychology Orla Muldoon explained that her project - Building solidarity and trust in public health messaging in the misinformation era – will look at how social solidarity affects how we hear and work with public health guidelines.

The new research funded by the Health Research Board and the Irish Research Council will look at what drives social solidarity with emergency public health measures. The project will also develop specific public health messages for at-risk groups and engage with those groups to help build trust in agencies such as health services and the police.

The project will explore the value of social solidarity for the pandemic response, will assess how to tackle misinformation and disinformation and will develop specific messaging to build solidarity and trust.

“We are very grateful to the Health Research Board and the Irish Research Council for this funding.  As vaccination efforts are rolled out, solidarity and trust are as important as ever in combatting COVID-19.  We hope that our research will help to keep people on board with public health efforts,” explained Professor Muldoon.

COVID-19 can result in life-threatening damage to multiple organs in the body, including the lungs, heart and kidneys and Paul Murray, Professor of Molecular Pathology at UL, explained that his project seeks to understand how the virus affects these different organs, and how the immune system responds – information which will be crucial to developing effective treatments.

The new study - How does COVID-19 damage organs in the body? – is funded by Science Foundation Ireland to examine organs donated from COVID-19 patients after their death, with informed consent from their relatives. This will offer new insights into the processes that damage organs in COVID-19, and particularly how the virus or the immune system could be driving that damage.

The UL project will use molecular techniques to examine organs and tissues donated for research from COVID-19 patients. The study will look at a wide range of biological processes in these organs, including the activity of immune cells and whether the virus is present in them. Crucially, the researchers will compare their findings to non-COVID-19 causes of lung damage.

Understanding more about how COVID-19 damages organs in the body will help to identify signals that a patient is at risk of such damage, and inform how we trial treatments for the disease, said Professor Murray.

“Even though the widespread vaccination programmes are expected to bring an end to the current coronavirus pandemic, there remains an urgent need to understand how SARS-CoV-2 and viruses like it cause such devastating disease in humans,” he explained.

“Arming ourselves with this knowledge now will not only help us tackle other important viral diseases, but will also prepare us for the almost inevitable emergence of new viral diseases in the future.”