MU research to examine why people with liver disease are more at risk from COVID-19

Monday, December 14, 2020 - 11:00

Research being undertaken by Maynooth University that aims to understand why people with liver disease are more at risk of dying from COVID-19, is to receive funding as part of the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) led COVID-19 Research and Innovation Programme.
More than 40,000 people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have liver disease, meaning that they have low levels of blood components that may stop SARS-CoV-2 infection and they also are less able to control inflammation. If they get infected with SARS-CoV-2 they are more likely to die however it is unknown why this is the case. Science Foundation Ireland is funding a new study to find out whether it is the changes in blood components or the inability to control inflammation that makes people with liver disease more ill with COVID-19.
The study, run by Maynooth University, Queen’s University Belfast, and St Vincent’s University Hospital, will investigate how blood samples from people with liver disease responds to the COVID-19 virus in the lab. The researchers will find out if their blood is less able to stop SARS-CoV-2 from making copies of itself, and if it promotes the excessive inflammation that can cause damage in severe COVID-19. 
The findings will help to design strategies for identifying patients who are at greater risk from COVID-19 and identify what treatments for COVID-19 are likely to work best in people at high risk due to liver disease. 
The research is being led by Dr Mark Robinson of the Department of Biology and the Kathleen Lonsdale Institute for Human Health Research at Maynooth University and Dr Connor Bamford of Queen’s University Belfast, in collaboration with Mr Tom Gallagher of St Vincent’s University Hospital. 
Dr Mark Robinson commented; “Healthcare services for patients with liver disease in Ireland are overstretched, and COVID-19 has made this worse. We urgently need to understand why liver disease increases the risk of dying from COVID-19. This project will help us understand more about the virus and the immune response to it, all to improve clinical care for patients with liver disease.” 

The research projects are part of a coordinated COVID-19 Rapid Response Research, Development and Innovation programme with projects supported by Science Foundation Ireland, in partnership with the Department for the Economy and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and the Irish Research Council and Health Research Board.

A total of 39 projects are being awarded funding under the SFI led Covid-19 Research and Innovation Programme. Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, TD, today announced an investment totalling €10.5 million under the initiative.
The Maynooth University-led project is one of nine research projects being undertaken as part of a collaborative all-Ireland research partnership supported by an additional £1.29 million from the Department for the Economy and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland. The project, titled DELAY-COVID: Dysregulated innatE immunity in Liver disease amplifies the severity of COVID-19’, receives €281,141 in SFI funding and £25,000 from the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland.
Commenting on the awards Simon Harris, TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science said: “I’m delighted to announce this significant investment into furthering our understanding of COVID-19 and finding solutions to the challenges the pandemic has presented to our society and economy. As we move closer to commencing a vaccination programme, we need to understand that the virus has not gone away – supporting our expert researchers in our higher education institutions will help us to safely reopen our society. This latest research also includes nine all-island research projects, which is really exciting. COVID-19 does not know any borders. Working together across this island will help us in our fight.”

Commenting on the projects supported by the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland, the Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, said: “This virus knows no frontiers and it is vital that the world-class research strengths of Northern Ireland universities are fully harnessed to address the common challenges we are all now facing right across this island, north and south. Collaboration between researchers promotes innovative and impactful outcomes and this has been underlined by the way the global science community has come together to address the threats and opportunities posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This SFI programme is very much part of this wider global effort and I welcome the opportunity it has provided for added-value collaboration across both our jurisdictions.”

Welcoming the investment, Stephen Donnelly, TD, Minister for Health, said: “Research has been a key part of our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and we will continue to rely on research in the months ahead. This year, we have not just experienced a pandemic, we have also seen an infodemic. There has been an overload of often unreliable information. We have seen examples of this in relation to the use of vaccines and on unproven medicines. As we plan to introduce a COVID-19 vaccination programme, it is essential that we tackle things like misinformation. Many of these research projects will provide evidence to help us do that. I look forward to using the findings from this research for the benefit of Irish people, the health system and society.”
About Maynooth University
Maynooth University is ranked in the top 50 global universities under 50 years old, achieving a ranking of #43 worldwide, and #1 in Ireland, in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) Young University Rankings. Tracing its origins to the foundation of the Royal College of St Patrick in 1795, Maynooth University was formally established as an autonomous university in 1997. Maynooth is Ireland’s fastest growing university with more than 13,000 students, including almost 1,600 taught postgraduate and professional students and over 400 research students.