School of Biotechnology
Susan Harman, Eoin Corcoran, and Denise Burtenshaw; postgraduate students of SoBT
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The SoBT and COVID-19 - Population Screening

COVID-19 has, and continues to have, a significant impact on the global population. In the past few months, as rates of incidence swelled, there is no doubt the virus in question has affected the lives of everyone the world over. Upon confirmation the virus had reached Ireland, the numbers of incidences steadily increased in the weeks that followed. The reaction needed to be swift - and owing to the coordinated efforts of the Government, the Health Service Executive, and institutional bodies they continue to liaise with today, our country has seen many people of different training and skillsets devote time and energy to coordinated efforts against coronavirus.  

Denise Burtenshaw, postgraduate student of SoBT

Denise Burtenshaw, postgraduate student of SoBT

Denise Burtenshaw is a post-graduate researcher of the Vascular Biology and Therapeutics Group based in the school of Biotechnology, Dublin City University. As COVID-19 rates climbed and the demand for tests intensified, Denise; along with research group colleagues Eoin Corcoran and Susan Harman, offered their expertise in molecular biology to calls for those qualified to help in the enveloping crisis, and have been actively involved in round-the-clock setups that have been screening the daily intake of thousands of samples of our nation’s population midst the COVID-19 crisis.  

In the third part of our series covering contributions from members of the School of Biotechnology, Denise details her experiences over the last several number of weeks working at one of the laboratories responsible for in the screening process.

 

‘As the situation escalated, I saw calls from the Health Service Executive for healthcare workers, research administration and those with laboratory experience to help with national efforts at managing the crisis’, recalls Denise, ‘As the national demand on COVID-testing increased, initiatives and support systems, such as the Contact Tracing Centre located on DCU’s campus, were quickly established and subsequently helped alleviate the pressure on the healthcare sector. As quickly as these sites were set up for sample collection, so too were sites for analysing the samples.’

‘In looking to see how I could contribute I saw a call for those with a background in molecular biology to help with screening samples in these laboratories. As my PhD is molecular biology-based I put myself forward for a number of different positions on IrishScientistsOnCall.com and before long I was contacted with an offer to assist screening patient samples’

 

‘There were calls for a number of different positions – I would have been happy contributing in any way I could’

 

In describing what her work entails; ‘COVID-19 is a virus and as such it lacks the capability to replicate itself. It therefore needs a system which it can hijack to make copies of itself in order to survive which as it happens, we can provide by way of the cells that make up our tissues and organs. The particles carrying the gene encoding the virus enters our respiratory tract via our nose or throat and invades, almost like a Trojan horse, inserting the gene into our cells for replication to occur. As the infected cells start to split their time between producing viral particles and the proteins necessary to our cells for function proper, this ultimately leads to anomalies which manifest on the tissue/organ level as the symptoms which have been firmly established in those who contract such’.

‘Whilst there are now a variety of ways to test for COVID-19, we have been analysing samples obtained via the swab-tests; which people are probably familiar now, whereby a sample is taken from the back of the throat and from the nose. This sample is basically where COVID-19 infection begins so by testing for the presence of the virus’ genetic code using a sample from this area you can tell if someone has been exposed to, and is potentially a carrier, of the virus’.

‘When the samples arrive to the lab, they are treated with a reagent that has the ability to break down the viral particles, releasing the genetic code into solution. We then use a technique known as polymerase chain reaction or PCR which can be used to amplify virus-specific portions of genetic code from initially very small, undetectable amounts, to very large, easily measurable amounts. Simply put, if a person has come into contact with the virus, allows us to amplify and detect traces of the virus within the sample they provide and say for certain whether they are now potentially a host for the virus. If they haven’t come into contact with the virus,  there will be nothing to amplify and the PCR test will be negative’.    

‘At the height of the pandemic we were receiving thousands of swabs; each one representative of a person suspected as having been exposed to COVID-19. As this virus is highly contagious and results need to be reported swiftly, we worked in shifts and the instruments were run 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get through the volume of tests. Thanks to the combined efforts of everyone the intake is now significantly reduced, but on an average day we are still running 4000-6000 samples.’

‘My experience at our testing site, and taking into account we are but one of several testing sites across the country, has been incredible in that I’ve seen the hard work that has gone into the Ireland’s effort to manage the virus from not just the laboratory perspective, but also in other frontline settings such as hospitals, GP offices, and Contact Tracing Centres’.

‘We are but one stage in what is a multi-tiered process aimed at ensuring this virus does not takeover, and in keeping people safe. Its great I get to play a part of it and its something I’ll be able to look back on with great pride in years to come’.