Immunity after COVID-19: New answers from interdisciplinary collaboration
Not long after the coronavirus reached Sweden last year, over 2000 employees at Danderyd Hospital had their blood sampled by researchers in the Community study. This unique material is still being studied by a collaboration of the country’s leading scientists to break new ground in the fight against COVID-19.
Three leading research environments at three Swedish universities and Danderyd Hospital are now adamant on procuring answers to some of the most pressing issues regarding the ongoing pandemic. Such as the length of protection by antibodies after a covid-19 infection and what immunity might look like over time.
“In the spring of 2020, SciLifeLab announced a SEK 62 million call for research on covid-19. During five intense days, we received approximately 300 applications from all over Sweden and granted 67. This magnitude illustrates the great commitment of the research community, but also SciLifeLab’s important role as scientific coordinator. With our overall perspective, we were able to bring together new constellations of researchers, and the group surrounding the Community cohort is an extraordinary example of how far we can reach in limited time when researchers collaborate in the right setting,” says Mia Phillipson, professor at Uppsala University and co-Director at SciLifeLab in a press release from Uppsala University.
As reported by SciLifeLab on several occasions, Charlotte Thålin (KI/SciLifeLab) began work on the Community cohort in April 2020 by collecting blood samples from employees at Danderyd Hospital.
“Already minutes after we opened the registration, all places were filled, and the participants’ outstanding commitment remains: They continuously communicate their state of health via an app, in January we will perform a third sampling, and basically everyone follows. It gives us a continuous cohort that is easy to study, and that we now also gather the interdisciplinary excellence and manpower required to analyse the material in full will pave the way for results that no individual environment can deliver,” states Charlotte Thålin in the press release.
SciLifeLab researchers Sophia Hober (KTH) and Peter Nilsson (KTH) developed a multiplex test and applicable proteins that have been used in the Community study to deliver several relevant observations. Now we know that employees working close to covid patients have nearly three times higher occurrence of antibodies than those in administrative positions. Of those carrying antibodies, 87 percent only experienced mild symptoms or none at all.
In another study that began in October, Sara Mangsbo, research leader in immuno-oncology at Uppsala University, analyses how long our immune system provides protection after a covid-19 infection. In January, she will begin follow-up studies:
Sara Mangsbo (SciLifeLab/UU) is leading another study that began in October. Here, she analyses the time it takes for the immune system to lose its protection after the initial COVID-19 infection. This month her team will commence follow-up studies.
“When we are infected, our body activates T-cells that can kill virus-infected cells, direct the remaining immune system and generate lasting protection against future infections. The memory T-cells created against the virus can quickly be activated upon re-infection. By testing the blood samples in the Community cohort against synthetic pieces of the coronavirus, we can measure how long the memory cells remain active and study the immune response over time. Together with Pierre Dönnes at SciCross, we have developed synthetic peptides that can identify SARS-CoV-2 specific T-cell responses for the project, and if we screen all 2,149 samples, it will make an almost unique T-cell study in scope,” says Sara Mangsbo in the press release.
The form of interdisciplinary collaboration that surrounds the Community cohort is becoming increasingly important in the world of research. Several Swedish and international calls require collaboration across scientific and organisational boundaries. Lars Hultman, CEO of the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, regards collaboration to be absolutely crucial for sustainable societal development. And in the bill recently presented by the Swedish government for research policy 2021–2024, it is proposed that SciLifeLab shall be allocated SEK 130 million in order to develop a Center for Pandemic Preparedness.
“During the pandemic, we have shown that SciLifeLab is able to deliver under pressure, and the content of the research bill is for me a confirmation that the structure we add is necessary,” says Mia Phillipson. “Next, we will continue to see the results of the projects we granted funding in the spring of 2020. We have also, with funding from KAW, launched a new call focusing on covid-19. In the long run, we must take the time to gather everyone’s experiences from this period to be better equipped in the future, but we can already state how far the research community can reach with collaboration and team science.”
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