The Faces
Behind the Work

Exploring the impacts of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

Professor Sarah Medland and Associate Professor Lucía Colodro Conde

Professor Sarah Medland and Associate Professor Lucía Colodro Conde are leading a project focusing on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and wellbeing and the factors associated with resilience.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all of us at both individual and societal levels with no recent precedents in most western nations. In Australia, stress is arising from the measures to control the pandemic (e.g. social distancing, border closures, lockdowns). At the same time, the pandemic is an opportunity to put in place strategies to adapt to change.

Working collaboratively with national and international colleagues, the researchers on this project have developed online surveys to collect information on participant’s experiences during the pandemic. The study is unique in that these participants had contributed to previous research at QIMR Berghofer with their experiences prior to the pandemic, making possible the study of changes over time.

As might be expected, preliminary analyses of data collected in mid 2020 suggest symptoms of depression and anxiety have significantly worsened compared to the beginning of the year. This is true both for individuals with lived experience of depression and those who have not previously experienced depression. Difficulties with relaxation, concentration and fatigue were particularly common. By that time, the vast majority of participants (97%) reported practising physical distancing and 38% were practising voluntary self-isolation.

The project is ongoing with two more surveys in 2021 which will reflect the trajectories of different groups of participants throughout the pandemic and the challenges that we will face when of entering a post pandemic period. This project will generate knowledge that can be used to develop innovative methods to navigate this crisis which can be adapted to future health or environmental emergencies that affect large groups of people.

Establishment of a laboratory for COVID-19 research

Professor Andreas Suhrbier

Professor Andreas Suhrbier has overseen the repurposing of our high biosecurity (PC3) laboratory to handle and experiment on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This repurposing, which was completed in record time, now allows us to  evaluate drugs and vaccines.

The new facility has attracted the interest of a number of Australian and international scientists who want to test whether their experimental products could have a meaningful impact on this international crisis. Data generated within the facility by QIMR Berghofer staff has already flowed back to more than 20 academic collaborators.

The primary reason for setting up this facility was to provide an Australian-based evaluation facility that could be used quickly to identify promising findings and accelerate them through to the next stage of development. For instance, a small Queensland-based biotech company has come up with a rapid method for destroying the virus which could potentially make testing faster and safer. We are evaluating how well this performs when compared with current testing procedures.

The redevelopment of the laboratory has also allowed for collaboration with Australian and international biotech companies seeking to develop drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. New collaborators are emerging every week and we hope soon to have a full portfolio of projects.

First-in-class drugs to prevent severe stage COVID-19

Professor Sudha Rao

A symptomatic patients who display no viral symptoms are capable of being highly contagious and represent a significant danger of spread of the virus. This conveys the urgent need for new post-exposure prophylaxis drugs (PEPs).

Professor Sudha Rao and her team are developing first-in-class, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)-based drugs and identified re-purposed drugs in a targeted manner to combat the virus. Professor Rao’s lab is one of the first to employ these new drugs to block viral infection or replication, preventing severe disease and reducing viral load, blocking the infectious spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Professor Rao’s lab is uniquely positioned to combat COVID-19, as the team has clinical, drug development and clinical epigenetic expertise. They have harnessed their knowledge from drug development in the immuno-oncology field to combat this pandemic. The identification of how the virus works at a molecular model has allowed the team to develop PEP-based drugs.

Professor Rao is seeking further funding to undertake these critical primate studies to advance her novel class of PEPs to the clinic for the treatment of patients diagnosed with early stage COVID-19.

Discovery of drugs for treating cardiac dysfunction

Associate Professor James Hudson

SARS-CoV-2 leads to cardiac injury and dysfunction in two-thirds of hospitalised patients and higher rates of mortality in people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease. Associate Professor James Hudson and his team have conducted studies into the effects of COVID-19 on the heart.

As many COVID-19 patients die of cardiac failure, the team has focused on cardio-protection to potentially improve survival and reduce the impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The team’s research is using Associate Professor Hudson’s human cardiac organoid technology to identify inflammatory factors that are likely to play a critical role in cardiac dysfunction in COVID-19 patients. The team has generated close to 2000 human cardiac organoids for the experiments.

The research found two drugs could be repurposed for COVID-19 treatment. Baricitinib is already going into phase III clinical trials in the USA for COVID-19. The researchers also found that another class of drugs, bromodomain inhibitors, was even more potent. These were very effective in reducing the impact of inflammation on the heart and they are now working with a clinical biotechnology company to repurpose a drug for clinical trials in COVID -19 patients.

Bromodomain inhibitors that were used for this study may be effective for a broad spectrum of infectious diseases and their effects on the heart. Associate Professor Hudson and his team’s work will soon be published.

Attacking COVID-19 from all angles: more research in progress at QIMR Berghofer

Queensland-specific modelling of the COVID-19 pandemic: Dr James Roberts

Australia is at risk of new waves of infections. Mathematical modelling is being used to explore outbreak scenarios and intervention strategies in Queensland.

Effects of COVID-19 on immunotherapy for blood cancers: Dr Andrea Henden

Control of all viral infections in humans is dependent on the role of white blood cells called T cells. In this study, we were looking at T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 in both sick and recovered individuals. We are studying the immune factors that make some people more susceptible to severe COVID-19 symptoms and will help to develop new immune therapies to treat patients.

T cell immunity in COVID-19: Dr Corey Smith

Blood cancer treatments target immune cells that make antibodies to fight viruses. As COVID-19 is a new virus, it will allow us to understand how cancer treatment affects viral immunity.

‘Magic Glasses’ video for the COVID-19 pandemic: Professor Don McManus

A new educational video is being made for schoolchildren about coronavirus with community hygiene messages, particularly essential hand washing, and the need for social distancing to be used in educational settings.

Treating and preventing infections of SARS-CoV-2: Associate Professor David Harrich

This project aims to develop a novel anti-SARS-CoV-2 agent that can parasitise SARS-CoV-2 virus to reduce its replication, transmission and pathogenicity. This potential antiviral agent will be derived from the virus itself.

 Tocilizumab trial Associate Professor: Bridget Barber

An open-label randomised controlled trial of tocilizumab, a drug used to reduce the adverse effects of inflammation, is being planned to treat patients with severe COVID -19. It is hoped tocilizumab will reduce requirement for ventilatory support.

Human challenge trial of NL63 Professor: James McCarthy

Development of a way to test treatments for coronavirus infection in clinical trials is underway. A coronavirus that is different to the one causing the current pandemic and only causes mild infection similar to the common cold is being used in the study.

Biobanking and biomarkers for COVID-19: Dr David Reid

Investigation of whether the outcome of COVID-19 can be predicted based on either a throat swab, a blood test or a urine test is being studied. If we can identify a ‘prognostic test’, many individuals can be safely isolated at home instead of in hospital.