WCMR Team Response to COVID-19

At a time when we have been asked to socially distance and limit contact with other people, the COVID-19 outbreak has also brought with it a sense of community and has emphasised the importance of standing together and supporting others. The WCMR team are no exception to this and we are very proud of those who have gone above and beyond to help in different ways throughout these challenging times. Read on to find out more.

NHS Staff

We are so proud of all NHS staff, including those who work as part of the WCMR team within the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, who have put themselves on the front line to help care for those affected by COVID-19. This includes our recently appointed Centre Director, Professor Grainne Gorman, who spent time looking after patients on a COVID ward in the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI), Newcastle.

NHS staff not placed directly on the front line have been vital in supporting colleagues to ensure the best care for all hospital patients throughout the outbreak. This includes Nurse Specialist Alex Bright and Nurse Consultant Catherine Feeney who were both redeployed to work on a neurosurgical ward in the RVI.

Our multidisciplinary team within the WCMR includes NHS staff with many different roles, including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, speech & language therapists, dieticians, psychologists, service administrators, senior medical secretaries, clinical scientists, genetic technologists, biomedical technologists, diagnostic technicians healthcare science assistants and data managers, who have all continued as key workers to ensure the best care for our patients throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.  We would like to thank them all for their dedication and unwavering commitment to improve the lives of those affected by mitochondrial disease.

COVID-19 Research

Dr Brendan Payne, a Clinical Academic within the WCMR who specialises in infectious disease and medical virology, was involved in the screening of health care workers in England during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. This was important to ensure the health and welfare of NHS staff and allowed the rapid identification and isolation of healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 to protect patients and the wider community. Dr Payne is senior author on a medical paper published in the Lancet about this study, which featured in both BBC and Sky News coverage.  In addition, Dr Payne is also co-investigator on a new platform for diagnostic research in COVID-19. This is through the NIHR Newcastle In Vitro Diagnostics Co-operative (Newcastle MIC) has just been funded by UK Research and Innovation.

Dr Rhys Thomas, who is an Honorary Consultant in Epilepsy within the WCMR clinical team, is co-leading a clinical study to look at the neurological and neuropsychiatric features of COVID-19. Together with colleagues from Liverpool, Southampton and London, they are coordinating a nationwide surveillance programme and collaborating with international efforts.  For more information: www.coronerve.com.

PPE donation

The WCMR are proud to have worked with staff from across Newcastle University to help supply vital PPE to local NHS groups. This was essential given the national shortage that led to an appeal for donations of suitable replacement PPE.  Our donated items were provided by team members from across the Centre and consisted of 19 lab coats, 7 coveralls, 11 pairs of safety specs and over 25,000 nitrile gloves!  In addition, Olga Gumenyuk, who works as a Research Assistant in the WCMR, has been involved in 3D printing of face masks for the NHS.

We would like to thank Dr Helen Tuppen and Dr Angela Pyle, both Senior Research Associates and Laboratory Managers within the WCMR, who coordinated the PPE collection along with Shaun Hughes, who is a member of Newcastle University’s Estate Support Service. We would also like to acknowledge Helen and Angela and other members of the WCMR team who volunteered to help support the Centre during lockdown.

COVID-19 Screening

Public Health England were in touch with colleagues from Newcastle University to ask for volunteers who would be willing to help with lab work around screening for COVID-19.  The work required some experience of a technique routinely performed within the WCMR, called quantitative real-time PCR, and we were delighted by the number of WCMR team members who volunteered to help. Due to the overwhelming response from across the University, only Dr Katja Menger, who is a postdoctoral scientist working with Dr Tom Nicholls within the WCMR, was selected to help with screening at the Freeman Hospital.

Several members of the team very kindly offered to help drive volunteers to and from the Freeman Hospital to avoid the need to use public transport. This included Professor Robert Lightowlers, and PhD students Ruth Glasgow and Laura Smith.

In addition, Professor Rob Taylor, in his role as Scientific Director of the NHS Yorkshire & North East Genomic Laboratory Hub, supports the team delivering COVID-19 testing within Newcastle Hospitals, helping to coordinate the academic response at Newcastle University to build resilience through validating alternative assays and exploring RNA extraction-free methodologies.


Providing Information and Advice

The ongoing COVID-19 situation has brought a great deal of uncertainty for everyone but especially those considered to be extremely vulnerable and at high risk of complications. This includes our patients and families affected by mitochondrial disease. Members of the WCMR clinical team, led by Professor Bobby McFarland, have been working with the other highly specialised mitochondrial services and our charity partner The Lily Foundation to provide the latest information and advice for people affected by mitochondrial disease during the COVID-19 outbreak. Dr Julie Murphy and Dr Lyndsey Butterworth have been heavily involved in this communication and we would like to thank them for their ongoing support in this. What we know about COVID-19 and recommendations to help people stay safe have been changing regularly and we hope that by providing guidance tailored to our patient community, it will help reassure patients and keep them well.


Mental Health and Wellbeing

We know that many of our patients and families deal with uncertainty on a daily basis following a diagnosis of mitochondrial disease, but it is likely to be intensified at the moment given the huge uncertainty that surrounds the COVID-19 outbreak.  This can bring feelings of stress and anxiety that can have a huge impact on mental health and emotional wellbeing. As a result of this, Dr Ben Marram, who joined the WCMR clinical team as a highly specialised clinical psychologist last year, has been working with the clinical team to provide regular psychology updates that contain advice and guidance to help everyone during the COVID-19 situation. For more information: https://www.newcastle-mitochondria.com/coronavirus-advice/

The wellbeing of the WCMR team is also of utmost importance and we would like to acknowledge those who have helped ensure that everyone continues to feel part of our community wherever they are currently working. This includes Laura Brown and Clare Jordison, both Senior Clinical Trials Managers in the WCMR who are organising virtual ‘coffee mornings’ and Renae Stefanetti who has helped set up and coordinate our weekly virtual ‘Research in Progress’ meetings. In  addition, Dr Jo Elson is part of a Newcastle University scheme to check on the wellbeing of international students and is volunteering as part of the NHS initiative to help combat loneliness during lockdown.