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DCU responds with multiple research initiatives to find swift solutions to challenges posed by Covid-19 crisis

DCU responds with multiple research initiatives to find swift solutions to challenges posed by Covid-19 crisis

Developing a low-cost device for the detection of Covid-19 in health-care settings, deploying a rapid testing solution to enable a faster turn-around for Covid-19 test results, finding the right antibody test solution for Ireland, and enabling the deaf community to interpret the crisis are among a suite of innovations being pursued under the umbrella of Dublin City University's new dedicated research hub established in response to the global pandemic.

The hub is leveraging Dublin City University’s research expertise, in collaboration with national and international stakeholders, with a view to developing solutions that can be implemented and deployed within a three to six months time frame.

Overall, sixteen multi-disciplinary projects are being supported by the University’s Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub (R&I Hub) to work exclusively on addressing the challenges of Covid-19.

These research projects are addressing five key areas: technologies for rapid diagnostics for Covid-19; responding to the challenges faced by frontline healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing home environments; developing novel solutions to enhance the national testing strategy; mitigating the impact on organisations, workers and the economy; tackling societal issues in a Covid-19 world (education, business, the citizen).

The newly established DCU Covid-19 R&I Hub has placed a particular focus on testing and turn-around times for tests, in response to the national and international testing crisis, with researchers collaborating across the university's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) disciplines.

Efforts are now underway at DCU to discover the right antibody test for Ireland. When a person becomes infected with the virus, their immune system produces antibodies to fight the infection.

The use of antibody tests can support population studies to track the course of the pandemic in the community, assessing the overall infection rates in the population.

In addition, when the resultant immunity of individuals and its duration is better understood, such tests may also provide very useful information regarding the safety of those individuals in various environments.

At present there is no independently validated, commercial antibody test with adequate performance metrics. Dr Paul Leonard, (Faculty of Science and Health) is working with the HSE Covid-19 Laboratory R&D Product Solutions Group in order to determine the best antibody test solution and one that could form part of a national testing strategy.

A collaboration spearheaded by DCU’s Prof Stephen Daniels is aiming to develop a low-cost, portable device to check for the presence of Covid-19 on surfaces, especially those typically found in healthcare settings.

One of the issues with the virus is that it can exist on surfaces for a prolonged period of time and in turn can be transferred onwards to people.

The aim of the project is to enable early detection and thus interrupt the spread of the transmission. It is relevant to all health-care settings, but particularly to care homes for older or vulnerable persons.

Researchers at DCU’s Faculty of Engineering and Computing are exploring a “lab-on-a-chip” test solution that will reduce the number of laboratory steps required in the current testing process.

If successful, it will result in a faster, simpler and safer diagnostic test which can be used by front-line workers such as paramedics, nurses and firefighters.

The R&I Hub also includes a novel project led by Dr Sinéad Smyth, of DCU’s School of Psychology, and funded by the Health Research Board.

This project is developing a flexible resource package to support children and young people with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis (as well as their families and educators) to resume regular daily routines once Covid-19 restrictions are relaxed.

It will also look to determine what the current and long term impacts of the Covid-19 related restrictions are on the wellbeing of individuals with ASD and of their parents.

The experiences of first responders who have to complete the testing, assessment and initial treatment of people with suspected Covid-19 is the focus of researchers at DCU Business School.

Led by Prof Caroline McMullan, the LISTEN initiative will document the challenges and experiences of those closest to patients with the aim of helping to create a bank of information to inform best practice and further build national resilience in the face of the pandemic.

The issues facing civic society and life in a post-Covid-19 world are being examined in a range of other projects including the compilation of a glossary of terms related to the pandemic in Irish; ensuring people who are deaf or hard of hearing can access STEM resources; keeping children learning and active during Covid-19 and crisis translation of coronavirus specific government communications for minority groups during Covid-19.

The President of Dublin City University, Professor Brian MacCraith said,

“The establishment of this Research and Innovation Hub reflects DCU’s commitment to developing knowledge of direct benefit to citizens in our society.

The DCU research community responded in large numbers to the call for proposals and excellent projects have emerged from across our five Faculties.

The Hub brings our research strengths together in a coordinated approach to tackle a number of key challenges associated with the Covid-19 crisis, with a particular emphasis on testing, for example.

Our aim is to make an immediate and significant impact by developing solutions that can be implemented or deployed within a short period, in 6 months or less.”

Prof Christine Loscher, Associate Dean of Research and Lead of the DCU Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub said,

“The hub is a living example of a rapid response research initiative, placing collaboration, at both national and international level at the heart of what we do and bringing DCU’s interdisciplinary research capabilities together to make a strong and positive contribution by providing solutions to the many challenges we are now facing.

The projects funded are focused not just on testing but also on frontline workers, children, vulnerable groups, students and businesses within our society.”

About the DCU Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub

The DCU Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub brings together DCU's research strengths in a coordinated manner to tackle a number of key challenges associated with the Covid-19 crisis.

The purpose is to leverage all relevant disciplines across DCU’s five faculties and to focus on developing solutions to a small number of critical challenges identified in partnership with national and international stakeholders.

Projects align to five key areas: technologies for rapid diagnostics for Covid-19; responding to the challenges faced by frontline healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing home environments; developing novel solutions to enhance the national testing strategy;mitigating the impact on organisations, workers and the economy and tackling societal issues in a Covid-19 world (education, business, the citizen).

The Hub is supported through philanthropic donations made possible through the work of DCU Educational Trust.

DCU Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub- funded projects

A low cost device for detection of COVID-19 in healthcare setting Professor Stephen Daniels (FEC)

Viruses such as COVID-19 can exist on surfaces for prolonged periods of time and can thus be transferred from person to person via touch.

This project will develop a low-cost, rapid, portable device for sampling surfaces to check for the presence or otherwise of Covid-19 on a surface.

The device will check for traces or components of the virus DNA, allowing early stage detection of contamination sources and the ability to interrupt community and nosocomial transmission.

This is especially important in clinical settings or other facilities with vulnerable people.

Finding the right antibody test for Ireland: the Covid-19 Antibody Testing Hub Dr Paul Leonard (FSH)

When a person becomes infected with Covid-19 their body’s immune system will produce antibodies in response to the infection.

The use of antibody tests can therefore support population surveillance studies to model the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, assessing the overall infection and potential immunity rates in the population.

This information can then guide our public health response and allow for informed decisions regarding the relaxation of restrictions to be made.

Commercial antibody tests are now currently available on the market but none have been independently validated and no test has been recommended by authorities for use to date, which is a big problem.

Our project will, in close collaboration with the HSE Covid-19 Laboratory R&D Product Solutions Group to ensure a cohesive national approach is employed to tackle this problem.

The aim is to determine the best performing antibody test and recommend to NPHET which antibody tests should be employed in a national testing strategy.

Shrinking the Covid-19 assay for faster results David Kinahan (FEC), Prof Helen McCarthy (FSH), Prof Nicholas Dunne (FEC)

Currently diagnostic tests to identify infectious individuals is an important strategy for limiting the spread of Covid-19.

To perform these tests a sample (nasal swab) must be sent to a centralised laboratory for processing.

This work is labour intensive and time consuming.

The 'Low-cost Automated Molecular Diagnostics Assay (LAMDA)' project plans to use a technology called 'Lab-on-a-Chip' to solve this problem.

Lab-on-a-Chip is shrinking down all the laboratory steps, such as pipetting and mixing, into a disposable plastic cartridge.

This means once a swab is placed into the chip, and the chip sealed, results can be obtained with no more interaction from the lab technician.

This will result in a faster, simpler and safer diagnostic test which can even be used by front-tine workers such as nurses, paramedics and firefighters.

LAMDA will particularly aim to be robust and low-cost so that it can not only be used in Ireland but will also be suitable for use in developing countries where centralised laboratory facilities may not have the throughput to support widespread testing.

A rapid screening method for finding new therapeutic drugs for Covid-19. Professor Tia Keyes (FSH)

The first step in SARS-CoV-2 (COVID19) infection is the adhesion of the virus to the host cell membrane.

This is facilitated by the recognition of a protein at the virus surface by a protein embedded within the cell membranes of many human endothelial cell types, called angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor.

This project will adapt a model of the cell membrane, developed by Keyes research group to include the ACE2 receptor to enable us to model the preliminary viral-host recognition step, providing a means to investigate what other components of the cell membrane promote infection. We will then build a platform to rapidly test potential therapeutics that can inhibit SARS-CoV-2-ACE2 binding.

LISTEN: Capturing Learning from the Frontline Response to Covid-19 Professor Caroline McMullan, Dr Ann Largey, Gavin D. Brown, Grainne O’Shea (DCUBS)

This project will LISTEN to the first responders who must complete testing, medical assessment, triage, and initial treatment of suspected COVID-19 cases in a range of settings from individuals’ homes, nursing homes, to clinical settings.

It is vital that the challenges and good practice observed by those closest to the patients are documented, collated, and analysed.

This research captures opportunities for learning which can inform the current response to Covid-19, risk management in the medium term, and help build longer-term national resilience.

Communicating Covid-19: Translation and Trust Sharon O’Brien, Patrick Cadwell (FHSS)

It is accepted that public communication in a crisis needs to be timely, accurate, trusted, and appropriate.

This is especially true for unfamiliar ideas (e.g., social distancing or cocooning). Ireland is a multilingual and multicultural society.

We will measure how well Ireland implemented translation of critical information as a risk reduction policy in the COVID-19 pandemic and how this translated information impacted on the linguistic minorities in Ireland.

Covid-19 and Social Mitigation: Understanding Citizen Attitudes and Behaviour Jane Suiter, Eileen Culloty and Lala Muradova (FHSS)

Efforts to “flatten the curve” of the Covid-19 pandemic necessitate unprecedented restrictions on all citizen’s freedoms.

These measures have been implemented by governments on the advice of scientific and medical experts. However, widespread disinformation repeatedly questions the legitimacy of government decisions and the authority of scientific expertise.

To help counteract disinformation, this study investigates citizen’s exposure to mis/disinformation and whether information from expert and citizen sources can correct misperceptions citizens hold about Covid-19 and their impact on their willingness to comply with public health measures.

Leading in Crisis: Lessons from Chief Human Resource Officers Professor David Collings (DCUBS)

While Chief Finance Officers (CFOs) were hailed as the architects of recovery in the last recession, Chief Human Resource Officers (CHROs) are already playing a key role in leading organisational responses to COVID-19.

How leaders balance the tensions they face in key decisions in managing the crisis will have a profound impact on the recovery not only for the employees in their organisations, but for the future of those organisations, with significant implications for the global economy and society more broadly. Our study sets out to understand the experience of senior HR leaders in leading through crises.

The study will generate evidence-based and actionable insights for HR and other organisational leaders as they begin to exit the crisis.

It will also provide insights into the organisational practices and routines that have proven effective in navigating the crisis.

Crisis Terminology: Covid-19 related terminology in Irish Dr Gearóid O Cleircin (FHSS)

It has been widely noted in the Irish-speaking community that official communication in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak has taken place almost exclusively in English.

What limited material has been provided in Irish has occasionally been out of date by the time it was published.

The Téarmaíocht na Géarchéime (Crisis Terminology) project will develop a comprehensive glossary of terminology relating to the pandemic.

This will consolidate material from existing Irish-language sources as well as adding newly created terms and definitions.

This online resource will provide users with the technical vocabulary to communicate clearly and accurately on the topic of COVID-19 thus providing the framework to ensure that Irish-speaking citizens and communities are kept properly informed of developments in their own language.

Crisis Interpreting: providing access for the Deaf Community to STEM education during Covid-19 Dr Elizabeth Matthews (IOE)

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for public health information to be accessible to all citizens, including members of the Deaf Community who communicate through Irish Sign Language.

Increasingly, public briefings during emergencies in Ireland and overseas are including sign language interpreters to ensure that Deaf people are fully informed.

However, platform interpreting of this nature presents many unique and new challenges to interpreters: unlike regular interpreting assignments, limited advance information is available to enable preparation; much of the scientific vocabulary is likely to be new to interpreters or might not be developed in the national Sign Language; the setting is a high-stakes one where public health is at risk; the setting is also professionally high-stakes since it is in a very public domain (recorded live where it will be available for future scrutiny).

Anecdotally, it is known that some countries are struggling to secure sign language interpreters for such assignments because these challenges are so great.

This project will gather interpreter experiences in crisis-interpreting during Covid-19.

A guidelines working document, to which other stakeholders can contribute, will allow for smoother, immediate and successful provision of interpretation in future crises situations.

It will prevent the initial delays in access (as were experienced recently) and eliminate the advocacy work required of interpreters lobbying for provision, to enable them to concentrate on their interpreting work.

‘PE at Home’: Keeping children learning and active through Covid-19 Dr Maura Coulter (IOE) and Dr Sarahjane Belton (FSH)

The proposed ‘PE at Home’ project sees a physical education (PE) delivery solution within the home environment across Ireland. Through PE, this solution will enhance physical activity, skill competence, motivation and self-efficacy.

Physical activity is known to have many health benefits, including reduced risk of coronary heart disease, Type II diabetes, and certain types of cancer, but perhaps of more significance in the current Covid-19 context are the increased energy levels and emotional well-being associated with activity participation.

While primary schools remain closed until the summer holidays and teachers are doing their best to advise parents on home-schooling, maintaining learning in PE is extremely challenging to address.

Even when children return to school in September, it is anticipated social distancing restrictions will remain in place. The very nature of PE at school renders it difficult to deliver under social distancing restrictions.

The likelihood therefore is that there will remain a need in our primary schools for this solution until well into the next academic year.

Short ‘PE at Home’ lessons will be developed in partnership with the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) supported by the Irish Heart Foundation.

The recorded lessons a prototype of which is available here will be made available to schools, teachers and parents through the DCU Facebook page and scoilnet.ie platforms.

These lessons delivered by Irish teachers and their children, are both educationally sound, and instantly relatable for Irish school children.

Investigating the efficacy of PE at Home is paramount so that content can be improved iteratively, and a viable solution to what is likely to be a longer term issue, can be delivered for Irish society.

Open Source Innovation Dr Roisin Lyons (DCUBS)

While open-source innovation has been used in emergency situations previously, the scale and urgency of this pandemic has created an unprecedented global surge of innovative action.

This study seeks to investigate the trajectory and momentum of open-source innovative communities as embedded within the global and national developments of the covid19 crisis.

Focusing specifically on the TeamOSV initiative in Ireland, the study will employ qualitative case studies with key stakeholders within the community, and will also map open-source behaviour and output as related external factors pertaining to the spread of the virus.

Beyond the Covid Pivot: Towards Transformative Online Learning Mark Brown (National Institute of Digital Learning)

Learning online is not the same as learning in a traditional classroom, it requires a different set of skills to master. With the recent pivot to online learning in response to Covid-19, the ability to learn effectively online has never been more important.

Looking forward we need to develop the capacity of students to become effective online learners. We also need to look back to understand and learn from the experience of students so far.

This project will, therefore, develop and conduct research on a ‘Learning how to learn online’ MOOC to support students as they adapt to a greater focus on learning online in higher education settings.

The study will research students’ experiences and perceptions of barriers to learning online in response to COVID-19.

These insights will inform future decision-making, help the sector harness the potential of online education and provide improved online learning experiences for students.

Moving Large, Face-to-Face classes online Ann Marie Farrell (IoE), Dr. Mark Glynn, Karen Buckley, Suzanne Stone, Rob Lowney (TEU), Seán Smyth (SU).

Since March, teaching usually carried out in the face-to-face context has moved very suddenly online.

This has been a particular challenge for those teaching large class cohorts and for the students comprising those cohorts.

The overall aim of this project is to inform the practice of (a) academics teaching large groups and (b) those supporting academics in the large class teaching/learning context as we move forward into the next phase of this emergency situation.

The move to the online environment since March will be evaluated; data from supports provided since March will be analysed (e.g. support requests, PD workshops and seminars since campus closure) and surveys will be used to gather data on the student and staff experience.

The outcome of this project will provide guidance for designing learning experiences in the online context, taking diversity of large classes into account.

Details on Dr Sinead Smyth's recent funding announcement here


13th May, 2020
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