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University and health trusts collaborating to accelerate genomic testing

Academics and clinicians across Devon and Cornwall are collaborating and innovating to improve testing capacity for COVID-19 in the region.

The University of Exeter is supporting the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust (RD&E) and the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust (RCHT), through loaning equipment and contributing world-class expertise to the renowned NHS teams working on the disease.

Professor Sian Ellard sourced equipment from Dr Chris Scotton at the University of Exeter Medical School and from Professor Mike Allen at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The two “LightCyclers” are used to detect the virus after RNA has been obtained from a nasal/throat swab sample. The equipment is expected to provide resilience to the RD&E’s testing process. The Exeter Microbiology Laboratory team is already recognised as a national leader, processing COVID-19 testing within six hours, far swifter than the national average.

Dr Cressida Auckland, Consultant in Clinical Microbiology and Infection at the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Testing is an essential part of the armoury in the fight against COVID-19. We’re really proud of our testing capabilities in Exeter, which have been well beyond national average from the outset. It’s fantastic to be working with our university colleagues to improve our testing capacity still further. Together, we are uniting a wide range of outstanding expertise to beat this pandemic.”

Sian Ellard, Professor of Human Genomics at the University of Exeter Medical School and Consultant Clinical Scientist at the RD&E, said: “Science is our best defence against COVID-19, and in Exeter we’re really fortunate to have both outstanding individuals and longstanding collaborations between healthcare trusts and the university. We’re delighted to loan this equipment to speed up that process. Our research and genomics expertise is supporting the development of new ways to test many more patients efficiently and effectively.”

In Cornwall, Professor Will Gaze will loan an Applied Biosystems QuantStudio machine to the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust, which is working on new ways to expand its COVID-19 testing capacity. Professor Gaze said: “It’s an honour to be able to offer our top-of-the-range equipment to our friends and colleagues in the NHS to help strengthen their resources to fight COVID-19. We know that testing is a key task in fighting this disease, and it’s really heartening to see everyone pulling together across the region to donate expertise and resources.”

The latest collaboration builds on scientists and clinicians working together in Exeter to sequence the genome of COVID-19.

The Provost of the University of Exeter, Professor Janice Kay, said, “We are extremely proud that our outstanding researchers across our organisations are working in the service of our NHS partners for the benefit of the people of the South West.  We recognise and support the work that they all do to help to keep us safer during this unprecedented pandemic.”

The news comes after the University donated thousands of items of personal protective equipment that is normally used in laboratories to the Trusts, to protect both staff and patients.

The University has also arranged for Medicine students to have the option to graduate early, so they can qualify as junior doctors and support NHS colleagues on wards within weeks.

Date: 3 April 2020

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