The mass spectrometry coalition tackling COVID-19

Inspired by the actions of one Manchester academic, a new international network of more than 800 scientists has formed to diagnose prognosis for COVID-19 patients.

Joining forces to focus on prognosis

When faced with limited access to COVID-19 tests at the height of the pandemic, Perdita Barran, Professor of Mass Spectrometry at Manchester, was inspired to repurpose her laboratory to assist with national testing. She was not, however, able to do it at that point in time.

Similarly, colleagues across the UK and Europe were facing similar issues and joined forces to determine the best use of their skills and resources to support the crisis. They decided that the best use for mass spectrometry – the method of separating and weighing molecules – was to focus on prognosis, rather than diagnosis, of patients. As a result, mass spectrometry scientists looked for risk factor biomarkers to determine whether people would have a moderate or severe response to COVID-19 and the long-term effects it might have on patients.

The new COVID-19 MS Coalition involves more than 800 scientists from 18 countries, including members from the Human Proteome Organisation (HUPO), an international collection of researchers who are identifying and quantifying human proteins with mass spectrometry.

Mass spectrometry and virus detection

Mass spectrometry helps scientists understand how the virus interacts with the host by investigating the nature of the viral protein and the proteins found at the back of people’s throats – this practice is normally an important step when developing vaccines or therapeutics.

Professor Barran heads up the COVID-19 MS Coalition team at Manchester, leading a £1.8 million grant funded by UK Research and Innovation, which involves five other universities and combines the mass spectrometry capabilities of the Michael Barber Centre and the Stoller Biomarker Discovery Centre.

This project is using mass spectrometry to find prognostic biomarkers to guide clinical decisions and also catalogues all mass spectrometry research data into a single web catalogue. Data scientists around the world can then access the information to see how people are affected by the disease.

Professor Barran is also acting as an advisor to the Department of Health and Social Care, assisting the National Health Service on using mass spectrometry as an alternative testing method to reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Here, the aim is to develop capacity capability for diagnostics and prognostics.

Measuring molecules to help treat patients

“By weighing molecules accurately and monitoring quantity, we can also find out exactly what they are. Molecules can be measured in people with or without COVID-19, however, when someone has the virus the amount of a given molecule changes as a response and this is diagnostic,” says Professor Barran.

“Identifying important molecules and finding out how they change can help doctors treat patients more effectively. This process is used in a lot of illnesses, particularly in blood disorders.”

“Mass spectrometry also measures molecules from bacteria, a common cause of infection and illness, to allow doctors to treat patients with the right antibiotics. One area I’m interested in exploring is: if mass spectrometry can be used in a large collaborative effort in the UK to diagnose coronavirus, could it also be used to diagnose other infections and disease and healthy aging? In Manchester, we already use this process to diagnose Parkinsons Disease.”

Impact of the COVID-19 MS Coalition

The coalition has already produced more than 200 papers that use mass spectrometry to study the coronavirus and there have been numerous studies exploring prognostic markers.

Early COVID-19 MS Coalition studies that took place when disease rates and hospital admissions were high have contributed to a greater awareness of how to treat the virus and an understanding of how people that meet a specific criteria, such as cardiovascular problems or obesity, are affected.

“Coalition members are working together to find solutions to coronavirus so it’s important that we use the same methods, as we want those methods to be adopted by hospital labs,” says Professor Barran.

“I hope this coalition will lead to more collaborative science and that this pandemic allows us to develop public health that is less competitive. I also hope that any new resource being purchased for coronavirus, certainly through mass spectrometry, will benefit the diagnosis and treatment of other diseases.”

“The global data being collected now will be a great future resource as it allows scientists to have knowledge about people’s health and illnesses. The way we’re accelerating rapid diagnostic tests to a point of having them validated and being used by clinicians is a real celebration.”

Find out more

Meet the researcher:

  • Professor Perdita Barran is Associate Dean for Research Development at The University of Manchester and Director of the Michael Barber Centre for Collaboration Mass Spectrometry (MBCCMS).

Read about the launch of the COVID-19 MS Coalition