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03 Aug 2020

Victorian Government invests in COVID-19 research

Innovative COVID-19 research programs in Victoria have received a significant funding boost with the State Government announcing $5.5 million in grants through its COVID-19 Research Fund.

The Doherty Institute has three projects supported by the grants that were announced today by Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, the Hon Jaala Pulford.

They focus on research efforts to better understand transmission, immunity and the long-term health impacts of COVID-19.

One project, led by researchers at the Kent laboratory, is investigating an ‘immunity passport’ to COVID-19. It builds upon the team’s recent research, published in Nature Medicine, that detailed the mechanisms providing protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

University of Melbourne Dr Jennifer Juno, a postdoctoral researcher at the Doherty Institute involved in the project, said that understanding the drivers of protective immunity against COVID-19 is critical to securing long-term community health.

"Recent findings in animals suggests that neutralising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 are likely to protect from future infection, however there are still many unknowns,” Dr Juno said.

“Our research will be undertaking in-depth studies of antibodies, the cells that make them, and the cells that support them, to understand the drivers behind lasting protection to COVID-19.”

The research team have obtained a carefully-curated sample set from over 75 patients recovered from COVID-19 and are closely following these dedicated people over time to define the characteristics and durability of their immune responses.

“This will allow us to explore the feasibility of an ‘immunity passport’ following infection and provide detailed immunological profiles of COVID—19 immunity,” said Dr Juno.

Another project, uniting world leaders in their field, will use human-derived stem cells to better understand the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on a wide variety of different organ systems in the body.

Led by Professor Melissa Little at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and supported by the Doherty Institute’s Professor Kanta Subbarao, Professor Jason MacKenzie and Professor Sharon Lewin, and leading experts at Monash University and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, the project provides an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the direct and indirect effects of SARS-CoV-2 on lung, heart, kidneys, brain, immune system and blood vessels.

University of Melbourne Professor Kanta Subbarao, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research in Influenza at the Doherty Institute, said the research aims to identify options for improving patient outcomes, protecting patients from severe complications, and potentially identifying treatments that will save lives.

“This research will help us to gain a better understanding of the pathobiology of SARS-CoV-2 infection in many human organs, investigating which tissues are infected and how the virus affects them,” Professor Subbarao said.

“This knowledge may lead to changes in clinical care, allow us to target treatment to specific tissues and identify what long term consequences we can expect in patients with COVID-19,” she said.

Another project, led by Associate Professor David Anderson at the Burnet Institute in collaboration with the Doherty Institute’s Professor Dale Godfrey, Professor Damian Purcell and Professor Deborah Williamson, is focused on developing a point-of-care assay that can measure current or past infection, along with potential immunity to future SARS-CoV-2 infections.

University of Melbourne Professor Dale Godfrey, a Laboratory Head at the Doherty Institute, said the project aims to provide a tool that can effectively determine SARS-CoV-2 immunity at both the individual patient level and for screening populations at scale.

“Current point-of-care tests for COVID-19 are able to measure antibodies as a biomarker of infection, however they provide no information on whether these antibodies are actually protective,” said Professor Godfrey.

“This research will support the development of a highly scalable point-of-care test to measure neutralising antibody responses, and partial or complete immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

“Helping to improve our understanding of COVID-19 immunity, this information is essential for long-term strategies for containment of the virus,” he said.

Associate Professor David Anderson said that the Burnet Institute's focus with initial funding from the COVID-19 Victorian Consortium was to develop a sensitive and specific point-of-care test to identify who has a current or recent infection with SARS-CoV-2, and that work is approaching a successful conclusion.

"We are now delighted to be able to combine our point-of-care expertise with novel approaches from the Doherty Institute to develop a testing solution for the other key question of who is immune to infection or reinfection," said Associate Professor Anderson.

"Together, these two testing approaches will be critical tools in the management of COVID-19 worldwide," he said.

Image credit: NIAID