NUI Galway will lead three research projects as part of a coordinated COVID-19 Rapid Response Research, Development and Innovation programme. Announced by Government Ministers today the new investment of €10.5 million will support 39 COVID-19 research and innovation projects.
The three NUI Galway projects awarded almost €700,000 in total will investigate: How do the antibodies our bodies make affect the course of disease in COVID-19; Respecting People with disabilities’ Needs and rights in Crisis and Emergency; and Crisis coping for marginalised youth: living and learning through COVID-19.
Dr Michelle Kilcoyne a researcher and lecturer in Glycosciences at NUI Galway, will lead a project that looks at one of the ways that our bodies can fight the COVID-19 virus, by making antibodies against it. These antibodies in the blood can either stop the virus directly, or recruit cells of the immune system to kill it. However, this recruitment of immune cells is not well studied in COVID-19, and it may contribute to more severe symptoms of disease. Science Foundation Ireland is funding the project to clarify the links between blood antibodies, virus-killing activity and symptoms in patients.
At present, it is not known exactly how our immune system’s antibody response to the COVID-19 virus is linked to how mild or severe the symptoms are. The research project will examine blood samples from patients with COVID-19 and look at how the type and amount of antibodies link with recruitment of immune cells and the patient’s experience of the disease. By understanding more about how the body reacts to the COVID-19 virus, and how that links to disease, the findings will help inform how to vaccinate against and treat COVID-19.
Dr Michelle Kilcoyne, School of Natural Sciences, NUI Galway, says: “Developing vaccines and antibody therapies depends on using a particular viral antigen to recruit the correct immune response, or effector function, in the patient. However, antibody effector functions for particular viral antigens are not well studied in COVID-19 patients, and different effector functions may be linked to disease severity and outcome. Combining a strong team of clinicians and research scientists, we are applying a multiplexed and high throughput approach to understand the link between the viral antigen, the individual patient effector function, and disease severity.”
Professor Eilionóir Flynn, Established Professor, School of Law and Director of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, NUI Galway, will lead a new project supported by the Health Research Board and the Irish Research Council that will look at decisions made during the pandemic in several European countries and their impact on people with disabilities. The research will provide guidance for decision-making bodies to help them maintain their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
Strategic decisions made by countries and healthcare systems in the pandemic may not always support the rights of people with disabilities. Using a framework developed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, this project will analyse laws, policies and guidelines that emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland, Spain, UK, Italy, Sweden and Germany. The project will provide guidance to governments, medical councils and healthcare professionals in order to maintain obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
Professor Eilionóir Flynn, NUI Galway, says: “Emerging research findings, including from the International Disability Alliance and other disability groups, demonstrate that disabled people globally are disproportionately impacted by the current pandemic. Not only are disabled people at greater risk of contracting the virus and experiencing adverse effects (especially those living in institutional settings) but they are also disproportionately affected by restrictions in access to community services and supports. This research will help us to understand in more depth how countries can respond to the challenge in ways that protect the human rights of disabled people.”
Professors Pat Dolan and Gerry Mac Ruairc will lead a project focusing on young people aged between 12 and 18 who are marginalised or are at high risk during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and there is evidence that the most marginalised are becoming increasingly disconnected from school.
Funded by the Health Research Board and the Irish Research Council, the project will work with marginalised young people and their families to come up with ways of coping with and improving wellbeing. The results will be tailor-made approaches and supports for marginalised young people, as well as evidence to inform policymakers and provide tools for important stakeholders, such as teachers and parents.
Young people who are marginalised are at risk of disengaging from school, and from society more generally, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research will work with marginalised young people and their families to come up with new ways to support those at risk. By developing solutions with marginalised young people, the project can inform strategies that can help them engage with school and reduce the risk of disengagement.
Professor Pat Dolan, Director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre, NUI Galway, said: “The pandemic has posed very particular threats to the education and wellbeing of marginalised youth in Ireland.”
Professor Gerry MacRuairc, School of Education, NUI Galway, said: “This project is a unique opportunity not just to research the problem but, working directly with youth and their schools, to come up with real-world, practical solutions.”
President of NUI Galway, Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, commented: “I wish to extend my warm congratulations to Michelle, Eilionóir, Pat and Gerry on being included on the COVID-19 Research and Innovation projects announced by Government today. Research excellence is one of NUI Galway’s strategic values and is to the forefront of everything we do, and in particular when tackling the response to the COVID-19 crisis. Our main aim is to serve the public good and these diverse projects highlight how our values of respect, sustainability and excellence show we are working not only to address the health challenges created by this pandemic, but also our understanding of the social implications.”
Professor Lokesh Joshi, Vice-President for Research at NUI Galway, said: “Once again it is tremendous to see projects of this high calibre being led from NUI Galway in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This diverse range of disciplines highlights the innovative work being carried out by our research and innovation community in Galway. Ireland’s COVID-19 Rapid Response research and innovation funding initiative is a welcome support to these efforts, and I congratulate today’s awardees whose projects seek to address the challenges we face resulting from the pandemic in order to benefit healthcare and the wider society.”
The projects included in the coordinated COVID-19 Rapid Response Research, Development and Innovation programme are 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.
Commenting on the awards Simon Harris, TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science 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.”
Nine all-Ireland research projects were supported in areas such as surveillance in wastewater, disruption to food supply chains and a collaboration to investigate potential therapeutics.
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.”
Welcoming the investment, Stephen Donnelly, TD, Minister for Health, 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.”