One of Cambridge’s newest institutes, established to study the relationship between infectious disease and our immune systems, is leading the University of Cambridge’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 150 scientists and clinicians, the UK’s largest academic Containment Level 3 Facility, and a range of collaborators from across the UK and beyond.

Based on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID) is integrated with the NHS both locally, through Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and nationally, in particular through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) BioResource.

CITIID, based in the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre, opened its doors in September 2019. Following the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the institute has redirected all of its research efforts to tackling the pandemic.

“The world is facing an unprecedented challenge, with potentially millions of lives at risk, which is why over 150 of my colleagues at our new institute are focusing their expertise on the fightback against COVID-19,” says Professor Ken Smith, Director of CITIID.

“Together with our partners in the NHS and NIHR, we aim to identify those patients at greatest risk and understand why the coronavirus makes some people so sick while leaving others with only mild symptoms. Ultimately, we hope this will lead to the development of new treatments against this dreadful disease.”

The Institute last week opened what is believed to be the largest Containment Level 3 Facility in any UK academic institution. These facilities are required for work on dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus.

“The state-of-the-art facilities and equipment at CITIID will allow us to do essential work on the novel coronavirus in a safe environment,” says Professor Gordon Dougan. “Our institute, positioned as it is on the thriving Cambridge Biomedical Campus, is perfectly suited to lead Cambridge’s response, working with research and health partners locally, nationally and internationally on this urgent problem.”

The team at the institute has also been instrumental in evaluating and helping set up point-of-care, rapid diagnostic testing for patients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) NHS Foundation Trust, as well as developing tests for frontline healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients.

“Organising the logistics for testing has been a huge challenge,” says Professor Paul Lehner. “But thanks to a tremendous collaborative effort between CUH and the University, we are now testing frontline healthcare workers as well as people who are off work and in isolation due to potential COVID-related contacts.”

Recruitment is already underway of COVID-19 patients at Addenbrooke’s. Researchers aim to recruit all consenting patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 from the hospital.

Once consent has been obtained from a patient, the team will take blood and other samples, which will be processed in the Department of Medicine’s laboratories before being transferred for storage and further study at CITIID. Samples will be taken when the patients first arrive at the hospital and during the course of disease, with the research team also working alongside NHS staff to support patient care.

This study forms part of the COVID-19 BioResource, a collaboration with the NIHR National BioResource, and will involve state-of-the-art analysis of the samples, helping the team understand how coronavirus infects us and causes disease and how our immune system fights back. It aims to allow researchers to predict which patients will do well or badly, and to help inform the development of new medicines to tackle the disease.

“A key challenge for the institute is trying to understand how much of the lung disease seen in COVID-19 patients is caused by the virus itself and how much is due to an inappropriate immune response,” explains Professor Lehner. “An answer to this question will help guide how best we treat this devastating condition.”

The University recently announced that CITIID would take be taking a leading role in the £20 million COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, a major national effort to help understand and control the infection. Its researchers are also leading the evaluation of a new rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19, developed by a University spinout company, which is capable of diagnosing the infection in under 90 minutes.