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Two Clinical Medicine researcher's projects secure funding for COVID-19 Research

Two researchers from Clinical Medicine have been successful in securing state funding for vital research into COVID-19 and the implications of the disease on the health and well-being of our nation and on our health service and public health decisions.

The Health Research Board (HRB) in cooperation with the Irish Research Council (IRC) launched the COVID-19 Rapid Response Call in March to fund research to provide evidence for the national and global efforts to deal with the virus outbreak. The funding process was a highly competitive one and the awards received by our clinical medicine investigators acknowledge the excellent standard of research, innovation and expertise at the university, to tackle the COVID-19 disease.

This research will provide an invaluable contribution to the national effort to better understand COVID-19 and protect our communities. The two projects will investigate the effect of COVID-19 on: the use of telemedicine systems for vulnerable groups, those with systemic autoimmune disease and estimate the scale of the prevalence of the disease.

Principal Investigator: Professor Mark Little, Professor/Consultant of Nephrology, Clinical Medicine.

Professor Little's Project: Defining the disease course and immune profile of COVID-19 in the immunosuppressed patient (DeCOmPRESS study)

The aim of the research project is to define the course of SARS-CoV-2 infection in patients with systemic autoimmune disease, and to determine if COVID-19 is more or less severe in these immunosuppressed patients. Professor Little and his team will better understand how the immune system responds to the virus and assess whether immunosuppressive therapies could be used to treat COVID-19. It will also assist in providing clear guidance to patients with respect to cocooning and current use of immunosuppressant medication.

Professor Little said: The DECOMPRESS project will determine the outcome of patients taking immunosuppressive medication who contract SARS-CoV2. This will allow us to target accurate advice regarding cocooning to these patients, and to inform development of new therapies and biomarkers. Conventionally, we assume that, when the immune system is suppressed, the ability to fight infection is impaired. While this is certainly true generally, these medications may actually protect against the "cytokine storm" that characterises severe COVID-19. The project will build on work in the Irish Rare Kidney Disease registry and biobank, and will incorporate six clinical research facilities around Ireland, a dedicated smartphone app developed by patientMpower, the immunology expertise of St James's Hospital and the data integration capability of the ADAPT SFI centre.

Principal Investigator: Professor Orla Hardiman BSc, MD, FRCPI, FTCD, MRIA. Clinical Medicine, Consultant Neurologist, Beaumont Hospital, HSE Clinical Lead in Neurology.

Professor Hardiman's Project: Using Telehealth to enhance management of vulmerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Hardiman and her research team will implement, evaluate and modify a new patient / caregiver-oriented telemedicine system developed by their collaborators in Sheffield University, to provide immediate virtual support for those with Motor Neuron Disease (MND) and Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) and related conditions. They will examine the strengths and opportunities for the modification of this system, tailoring it to enhance care for Irish patients and their families.

Professor Hardiman said : The COVID-19 pandemic has made patients and their families reluctant to attend their GPs or visit the hospital, creating a high risk of patients experiencing untreated complications of their condition, and breakdown of care that is usually provided by family members and community-based services. Remote and accurate tracking of clinical symptoms, early recognition of new sysmptoms and timely home-based visits are very important. The telemedicine system will allo us to efficiently monitor people in real time, and deploy team members to those most in need, allowing continuation of high-quality patient centred care despite the limitations posed by COVID-19.

In the longer term, this telemedicine system will be adjusted to improve how care is provided between the hospital and the community services to improve the experience of patients and thei families.