COVID-19 research projects at Trinity awarded government ‘rapid response’ funding

Posted on: 14 December 2020

A diverse range of COVID-19 research projects at Trinity have been recognised by government today, receiving funding in the latest round of support from the state for research and innovation projects focussing on the disease.

The eight research and innovation awardees account for just over 20% of the 39 research projects (total fund value of €10.5 million) awarded by government.

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.

Ministers today announced details of new investment of €10.5 million in 39 COVID-19 research and innovation projects.

Two of the Trinity projects will be 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 Trinity teams will collaborate with researchers from the Ulster University.

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.


The Trinity projects and researchers are:


How can the built environment boost quality of life in long-term care during a pandemic?

Lead Researcher: Professor Desmond O’Neill, Trinity College Dublin


COVID-19 has brought many healthcare issues into sharp focus. Key among them is the need to balance infection control with quality of life in residential long-term care settings such as nursing homes. Science Foundation Ireland is funding a new project at Trinity College Dublin to look at the impact of space, buildings, and technology on infection control and on resident and staff wellbeing in long-term care settings. By finding that evidence, the project will highlight how we can design new long-term care buildings or retrofit existing ones to improve pandemic resilience.

What is the issue?

Infection control is very important in residential long-term care settings, but it needs to take the staff and residents’ quality of life into account. COVID-19 has highlighted how the built environment and infection control can exacerbate social isolation, loneliness and anxiety among residents and staff.

What will the research project do?

The research, led by Trinity College Dublin, will identify the features of the built environment that improve infection control and those that support quality of life, and where these converge or diverge.

What will the impact be?

By identifying the features that enable maximal infection control while retaining good quality of life for residents, the project will inform future builds and retrofits of residential long-term care buildings and will improve pandemic resilience.

Professor Desmond O’Neill, Professor in Gerontology, Trinity College, said:

The pandemic has pinpointed the importance of space and spatial practices such as social distancing and isolation, all of which have huge importance for the built environment in terms of planning, design and architecture: this is of particular importance for the nursing home environment, home of those at most risk for the twin COVID-19 perils of mortality and harmful social isolation.


Reading the room for engagement with online teaching

Lead Researcher: Dr Naomi Harte, Trinity College Dublin


Online teaching has become mainstream due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has its challenges, particularly with large classes. A teacher’s ability to use their skills to read the people in the room, and hence adjust their teaching strategy on the fly, is severely impaired in an online class. Science Foundation Ireland will support a project at Trinity College Dublin to develop RoomReader, technology that uses artificial intelligence to interpret visual, verbal and non-verbal cues of engagement from the class and interpret them live in an online classroom. Having this information will help teachers to adapt and encourage engagement during online classes.

What is the issue?

When classes take place online, once more than about 10 people take part, teachers can’t see and hear the standard cues they use in a in-person classroom to know that students are not engaging.

What will the research project do?

The project will develop RoomReader, which uses artificial intelligence to pick up on typical cues that students are engaged or losing focus, and provide information to the teacher either about collective engagement or specific issues for individual students.

What will the impact be?

The technology will benefits teachers and students in online classes by helping to boost engagement and improve learning.

Dr Naomi Harte, Assistant Professor in Digital Media Systems, Trinity College School of Engineering, says:

As a lecturer, a huge concern with online teaching is whether your students are truly engaged in a session. The technology developed in this project will use state of the art multimodal analysis and AI to support teachers live in a classroom, helping them judge how students are getting on, and making up some of the inevitable distance between you and your class.


Genes and COVID-19, what is the story in Ireland?

Lead Researchers:

Professor Ross McManus, Trinity College Dublin

Professor Tony Bjourson, Ulster University


The genetics of the population of Ireland may differ from other countries in ways that influence how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out on our island. However, we know little about the genomics of the Irish as it relates to this new virus. Science Foundation Ireland and the Northern Ireland Department for Economy will support a new project to sequence (read) the DNA of 1000 infected individuals from north and south of Ireland to determine how our genomes either promote or prevent this disease from taking hold or how sick we get when infected, and to look at how other issues, like age and gender, interact with genetics to affect the characteristics of the pandemic in Ireland.

What is the issue?

Genes likely play a role in how people respond to the COVID-19 virus, but we don’t have data about the genomics of the Irish population in relation to COVID-19.

What will the research project do?

The project will analyse samples from 1000 people from Ireland who have been infected with the COVID-19 virus and look at their genes, how their genes are switched on or off and at the bacteria in their mouths. This will build up our knowledge of how genes affect response to the COVID-19 virus.

What will the impact be?

The research will produce an all-Ireland repository of data about genes and the immune system in people from the island of Ireland, and this will be a tool to help us understand and combat COVID-19.


Professor Ross McManus, Professor in Molecular Medicine (Clinical Medicine), Trinity College, said:

This project will help us understand why we respond differently as individuals to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and which genes play outsize roles in fighting it. At the moment, we have no information on the Irish genome in this context. It’s important to have as comprehensive a profile of our genetics as possible, so it is great that we have an all-island study with our colleagues in the north.


 A three-pronged approach to tackling COVID-19 with antibodies

Lead Researchers:

Professor Kingston Mills, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Victoria McGilligan, Ulster University


In COVID-19, the body’s own immune system can overreact, leading to severe and sometimes fatal symptoms. Science Foundation Ireland and the Northern Ireland Department of Economy are funding new research into antibody-based technology to tackle this overexcited inflammatory response to the virus. The project at Trinity College Dublin and Ulster University will develop a combination of antibodies that can get inside infected human cells and keep inflammation under control, while also stopping the virus from making copies of itself inside the cell.

What is the issue?

Uncontrolled immune responses, especially in older individuals, people with obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, can result in fatal outcomes.

What will the research project do?

The project will develop and test a combination of three antibodies. One is InflaTMP, a technology designed to allow antibodies to get inside cells, which has been developed by co-principal investigator Dr Victoria McGilligan. Another antibody is designed to block a pathway of inflammation in the cells, and another to stop the virus making copies of itself.

What will the impact be?

By assessing this triplet of antibodies against the symptoms of COVID-19 in the lab, the project has the capacity to tackle two of the major issues associated with COVID-19: uncontrolled virus replication and excessive inflammation.

Professor Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology, Trinity College Dublin, said:

The project will exploit an innovative approach for disrupting the production of a key inflammatory molecule inside immune cells that cause lung inflammation and organ damage in COVID-19 patients.


Dr Victoria McGilligan, Lecturer in Personalised Medicine at Ulster University, says:

We are hopeful that this approach to therapy, where we target both viral replication and inflammation, could also be a powerful treatment strategy for other human coronaviruses and other viruses, including Influenza virus, which exploits similar infection and inflammatory responses.


Does viral history affect how older people respond to COVID-19?

Lead Researchers:

Dr Nollaig Bourke, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Brian McSharry, University College Cork


The viruses we encounter during our lives leave an imprint on our immune system. This “viral history” is linked to health in older people, but it has not been studied in COVID-19. Science Foundation Ireland will fund a project to analyse samples from a unique Irish ageing study and assess this viral history in older adults. The research will help to determine how viral history influenced who got COVID-19, the severity of disease and how it relates to important COVID-19 risk factors.

What is the issue?

A person’s previous exposure to viruses may affect how they respond to the COVID-19 virus, but we don’t know how this ‘viral history’ affects older people in Ireland and their level of protection against COVID-19.

 What will the research project do?

The research will use archived samples collected from older adults in The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA). The study will measure prior viral exposure in older adults and analyse how that relates to experience of COVID-19.

 What will the impact be?

We will understand more about how an older person’s previous exposure to viruses affects their response to the COVID-19 virus, and possibly develop ways to identify older people who are more at risk in the pandemic based on their viral history.

Dr Nollaig Bourke, Ussher Assistant Professor in Inflammageing in Trinity College Dublin, said

We encounter many viral infections throughout our lifespan and these can impact our health as we age and importantly, can change how your immune system responds when it encounters a new virus. This important determinant of anti-viral immunity has not previously been investigated regarding immunity to SARS-CoV-2. This funding gives us the opportunity to generate a comprehensive “viral history” from pre-pandemic samples from older adults in the TILDA study, an Irish longitudinal ageing study that has 10+ years of demographic and health data. By combining this viral history with the important health information available on TILDA participants, we can gain significant insights into the anti-viral immune system in older adults and learn more about why some older people are more likely to get COVID-19 and experience worse disease.


Solving the puzzle of innate resistance against COVID-19

Lead Researcher: Professor Cliona O’Farrelly, Trinity College Dublin


Not all people develop infection if they are exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. This may be because some people have protection against the virus thanks to their innate or inbuilt immune systems. Science Foundation Ireland is funding a project to look at how the innate immune system could offer this protection against COVID-19, and to identify the immune signature of people who are likely to have this inbuilt resistance against the COVID-19 virus.

What is the issue?

Some people do not become infected, even if they are exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease. This may be due in part to how their innate or generic immune system works, but we don’t know.

What will the research project do?

The project will examine the innate immune response to the COVID-19 virus, to figure out what characteristics of this part of the immune system can make someone resistant to this virus. The innate immune system can cleaar infection without antibodies or T cells and is the first respond to infection before our adaptive or specific system even knows that the infection is there.

What will the impact be?

Identifying who is resistant to COVID-19 and how they are resistant could have a major impact on public health measures, vaccine development and basic understanding of viral infections.

Professor Cliona O’Farrelly, Professor of Comparative Immunology, Trinity College Dublin, said:

 This is an exciting opportunity to identify people who are resistant to SARS-CoV-2 and to try to figure how their innate immune systems do that. SFI has been speedy and proactive in supporting work that could be really important in the fight against CoVID19 for Ireland – and internationally.



TROPIC: Measuring fatigue in patients post-COVID-19

 Lead Researcher: Professor Roman Romero-Ortuno, Trinity College Dublin


People who recover from COVID-19 may experience fatigue for weeks or months afterwards, and this may delay their return to work, but fatigue is hard to measure clinically. Science Foundation Ireland is funding new research to use technology to identify objective signs of fatigue. The TROPIC study at Trinity College Dublin will measure physical and cognitive changes in patients who experience fatigue after COVID-19, to provide doctors with objective ways to measure fatigue and help patients recover from COVID-19.


What is the issue?

Many people who have had COVID-19 experience fatigue afterwards, but fatigue is hard to measure. Existing fatigue measurement tools in the clinic lack objectivity and specificity, making it difficult for clinicians to properly diagnose it and treat it.

What will the research project do?

The TROPIC study will use existing non-invasive technologies to measure bodily signals of fatigue in adult patients previously diagnosed with COVID-19, who are now COVID-19 negative. The suite of assessments will include physical condition, gait and balance and mental function.

What will the impact be?

By providing a more objective way to measure and identify fatigue in patients who have had COVID-19, the research will not only inform accurate objective diagnostics of post-COVID-19 fatigue, but will also guide clinicians in directing the most appropriate ways to treat patients, bringing not only patient-related but also health system and economic benefits.

Professor Roman Romero-Ortuno, Associate Professor of Medical Gerontology, Trinity College, said:

We are delighted to have received this funding. TROPIC will conduct collaborative, interdisciplinary clinical research that leverages state-of-the-art infrastructure and expertise at St James’s Hospital and Trinity College Dublin. TROPIC brings together expertise from Infectious Diseases, Respiratory Medicine, Immunology, Bioengineering, Physiotherapy, Medical Gerontology and others. Identifying physiological signatures of post-COVID fatigue will pave the way towards more tailored and effective interventions. We look forward to recruiting in 2021!

Helping junior doctors forge their identity in the COVID-19 crisis

Junior doctors face a steep learning curve in healthcare at the best of times, and during a pandemic that curve is steeper still. How does it shape their view of themselves?


New research supported by the Health Research Board and the Irish Research Council will engage with recent graduates in the Irish medical system to find out how they are developing professionally during their first year of practice, how they are feeling, and work with them on developing strategies to gain competence, confidence and build resilience that can be incorporated into their future practice. The project will share its findings among medical communities in Ireland and internationally.

What is the issue?

Junior doctors (interns) are entering the healthcare environment at a time of crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic; they must balance the need to develop clinical competence with the uncertainty of the clinical environment and the psychological impact this may have on them and on their future practice.

 What will the research project do?

The project will survey junior doctors in Ireland to examine their experience of clinical practice, their professional growth and introduce them to wellbeing and coping mechanisms developed over decades of research.

What will the impact be?

By providing interns with tools to recognise their clinical development and build their psychological resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, the research will help junior doctors to avoid burnout, and will give them skills to bring forward in their career after the pandemic.

Lead researcher Professor Martina Hennessy, Associate Professor, Trinity College Dublin School of Medicine, said:

Being a junior doctor in a time of crisis presents challenges as well opportunities. We believe the increased numbers of interns and supervision will have affected interns’ integration into clinical practice, while the uncertainty of practice, workloads and patient outcomes may increase the stressors usually experienced at this important developmental phase of a doctor’s practice. It is a dynamic time to be honing professional practice to develop clinical competences, to know your professional boundaries and capacities and to honour your commitment to patients. We believe this research will give us insight into how to support future interns as they transition from medical students to junior doctors.














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