Showcasing Science: Sir Paul Nurse “For science, this is a challenging time”

This interview was originally published as part of the “COVID Q&A” series for The Biologist, the magazine of the Royal Society of Biology. More interviews from the series can be found here.  

Sir Paul Nurse Hon FRSB, director of the Crick Institute, on turning Europe’s largest biomedical research centre into a giant testing facility.  

Can you summarise how the Crick shifted its focus since the pandemic began?

When Coronavirus started to affect the UK, some of our clinician scientists, including those who work at both the Crick and in hospitals, saw that there was an urgent need for additional testing for staff and patients in the NHS. It was clear that we could make use of the facilities and expertise at the Crick to help. As the largest biomedical facility under one roof in Europe, we also felt we had a responsibility to act and provide facilities in this way.

In mid-March we started work to repurpose our laboratories as a testing facility. After two weeks working with our partners University College London Hospitals (UCLH) NHS Foundation Trust and Health Services Laboratories we started to test staff from UCLH. Our test aims to ensure that healthcare workers can find out if they are infected or not and whether they can safely be at work.

What other COVID-19 related projects have you been involved with and what have they achieved so far?

As well as repurposing the Crick as a testing facility, a number of our researchers have started projects looking into the virus that causes COVID-19 and how the body responds to this disease.

These projects are varied, from looking at how the virus replicates in human cells, testing potential anti-inflammatory treatments, understanding why some people get more ill than others, testing diagnostic kits and more.

It’s still early days for a lot of these studies but our researchers are of high quality and their work should contribute to a greater understanding of the virus, how it behaves and, ultimately, the best ways to target it.

Can you talk us through some of the challenges of working during these strange times, for example the adaptations required to keep yourself and staff safe; trying to source in-demand equipment and reagents; or the effect on ongoing non-COVID research projects/departmental business?

Scientists have lives outside of the lab and our researchers have been affected by the coronavirus in different ways, from parents juggling childcare, to researchers living in a different country from their families. This means there’s no one-size-fits all approach to supporting our staff. What’s vital is communication and listening to their concerns.

For a couple of months now, we’ve been talking regularly with our researchers and support staff to help them understand what’s going on at the Crick and how the changes here impact them. We’ve been sharing practical advice, like how to set up an at-home work station properly,  and encouraging people to stay in touch – for example a buddy system is in place for people to check in on each other each day. With most of our staff working from home, I’ve heard about great examples of teams coming together through virtual quizzes or by having video-call team meetings with light-hearted themes.

For science, this is also a challenging time. We’ve refocused our work on COVID-19, including our testing facility. The method we use is flexible and we’re confident we’ll be able to source the necessary materials to continue this important work. And for the scientists who are coming in to support this work, we have stringent social distancing in place, and thorough and regular cleaning to ensure they can work in a safe environment.

What have you noticed that you and your colleagues are doing differently owing to this being an urgent, emergency situation? Have you noticed a difference in the way teams across different fields and institutions are working?

Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen people and institutes respond with urgency to work together. Approvals and licensing processes which could have previously taken months have been significantly sped up. People have been putting aside their own research projects and working on COVID-19. In my own lab, where researchers have worked on yeast for nearly 40 years, people are now contributing their skills to work on COVID-19 projects.

Have you sought new funding or additional support for your work, and if so how easy was it to navigate the relevant channels to access this?

There are sources of funding available for research on COVID-19. Depending on the nature of their work, our researchers are exploring these options, but at present we are reallocating resources from other areas to support COVID-19 research and testing.

The Crick is core funded by our partners, including Cancer Research UK, MRC and the Wellcome Trust. Charity-funded research has taken a big hit, so it’s never been more important to support the work of charitable organisations like CRUK.

How are you keeping up with information coming from other research teams around the world, and communicating information from your work so that it can be utilised around the world?

Since the start of this crisis, many researchers have focused their efforts on understanding and finding ways to combat this virus. We’re keeping a close eye on their work and findings, to see what we can learn and build upon in our research.

We will make sure that when we reach findings these are shared with others. For example, we’ve shared the procedures we’re using in our COVID-19 testing facility with other research institutes, so that labs like ours can come together to help the wider national testing efforts.

More generally, how would you describe the bioscience sector’s response to the crisis and the interaction with public health bodies and Government? e.g. has it been well-coordinated and collaborative, uncoordinated & chaotic?

This is an unprecedented situation, unplanned and chaotic. What is required is that everyone, from the Government to research institutes, play their part and do all they can to combat COVID-19.  The science sector has pulled together quickly and openly, which has been impressive to see. Once the pandemic is over, it will be vital to come together to see what worked well, what went wrong and how it could be improved. But for now everyone must focus on the challenge at hand.

This blog was published as part of our Showcasing Science: Behind the scenes of COVID19 series. Read the rest of the blogs here.