2021 Crick translation prize goes to COVID-19 clinical study team

The Crick’s annual Sir David Cooksey Prize in Translation has been awarded to the team behind a clinical study examining whether the cystic fibrosis drug Dornase alfa could reduce inflammation in the lungs of COVID-19 patients. The winning team is led by Crick group leader Veni Papayannopoulos and UCLH respiratory consultant Joanna Porter. 

Winners of the 2021 Crick translation prize

The winning team with Veronique Birault (Director of Translation), David Roblin (Chair of the Crick's Translation Advisory Group) and Paul Nurse (Director).

Work on the trial began in March 2020, at the peak of the first wave of COVID. The Crick and UCLH team rapidly mobilised to design the study (the COVASE trial). The study was externally funded by LifeArc and received in kind support from Roche who provided Dornase alpha, and Pari who provided the nebuliser.

Key support was received from statistical consultancy Exploristics, and from Pauline Lukey, an independent consultant in early drug discovery and development.

The project emerged from research in the Crick’s Antimicrobial Defense Laboratory studying the roles of web-like structures called ‘neutrophil extracellular traps’ or NETs. During an infection, white blood cells called neutrophils target pathogens by releasing NETs, which capture and kill pathogens.

The researchers believed that COVID-19 patients may be producing excess NETs, and that these NETs may cause excess inflammation and contribute to the development of pneumonia. 

The team has now demonstrated that Dornase alfa reduced inflammation in hospitalised patients with severe COVID-19 pneumonia. Participants were found to have a 63% higher chance of surviving and leaving hospital, compared to patients receiving the best available care at the time. 

“What makes this treatment special and effective is the fact that unlike traditional treatments involving just one drug, it’s able to dampen multiple sources of inflammation, without completely shutting down the immune response," said Veni on receiving the prize. "Dornases have shown remarkable beneficial effects in animal studies and we are very pleased that we can now demonstrate their potential in treating patients with severe infections.”

“This would not have been possible without the amazing hard work and support of the Joint Research Office and Biomedical Research Centre at UCLH, the clinical research nursing team led by Joel Solis and of course the patients and their families that agreed to take part," said Joanna. "The beauty of this treatment is that it has been used for decades by children with cystic fibrosis and we know that it is safe and well-tolerated in this group. It can even be given outside the hospital setting so that patients can take it at home or in nursing homes”.

In presenting the award David Roblin, Chair of the Crick Translation Advisory Group said, “This is an excellent example of rapid translation from bench to bedside using novel science discovered at the Crick. This was only possible by outstanding clinical stage collaboration with one of our university partners, UCLH.”

The winning team receive £10,000 for their research in addition to a £2,000 cash prize. The prize is a way to encourage and recognise researchers and teams, and to provide recognition of their achievements to support their career development. It also aims to increase awareness and promote role models who can inspire other scientists through their multidisciplinary and innovative work.

New Crick Translation Fellows were also announced. The fellows help to create an outstanding translation community and act as role models for others: 

  • Sophie de Carne and Dhruva Biswas for their work on molecular biomarkers for lung cancer. 
  • Andreia Bernardo for leading the development of a new technology to differentiate stem cells into heart cells called cardiomyocytes. 

Veronique Birault, Director of Translation said, “We had three nominations of fantastic quality, all of whom are role models for others who wish to embark upon translational science”. 

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