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University of Leicester ranked in UK top three for COVID-19 research

Leicester has been ranked as one of the top performing universities in the UK for COVID-19 research, after being awarded more than £10.8 million of government funding since the pandemic began.

The University now sits alongside the University of Oxford and University College London and has been recognised globally for its work, including being the first in the world to discover the link between people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds being more susceptible to severe cases of coronavirus.

In July, the University announced it was leading a new national research study into the long-term health impacts of COVID-19 on hospitalised patients. Backed by £8.4 million of funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health Research, the PHOSP-COVID study, led by Chris Brightling, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Leicester, with University of Leicester Co-Investigators, Professors Louise Wain and Rachael Evans, is the first UK-wide study to assess the health impacts of COVID-19 on patients and their rehabilitation.

Over the next 18 months, the PHOSP-COVID study will draw on expertise from a national consortium of leading researchers and clinicians – involving over 25 academic institutions, 53 hospitals and associated NHS trusts including the University of Oxford, the University of Manchester and Imperial College London.

Most recently, the University has been awarded more than £2 million in government funding to launch a major study examining the heightened risk of COVID-19 facing BAME healthcare workers in the UK. Jointly funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the £2.1m University of Leicester-led UK-REACH study (UK Research study into Ethnicity And COVID-19 outcomes in Healthcare workers) will work with more than 30,000 clinical and non-clinical members of staff to determine their risk of COVID-19, based on the analysis of millions of healthcare records. In addition, the University has won two out of six grants awarded nationally into understanding the links between COVID-19 and ethnicity.

Commenting on the ranking, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Leicester, said:

“The ground-breaking research being conducted by our COVID-19 research team has been instrumental in understanding the virus, its impact and how best to treat it. We are proud to be at the cutting edge of COVID-19 research, having delivered a number of world firsts relating to our understanding of and response to the virus, and I salute the work of our lead academics and their teams who embody our ethos of being citizens of change.”

“Professor Kamlesh Khunti and Dr Manish Pareek have played a pivotal role in bringing to light the severe impact COVID-19 has on BAME communities in particular, driving forward debate and demanding greater scrutiny into this important issue. This includes their critical research into understanding why BAME healthcare workers could be at greater risk of developing COVID-19 and what steps are needed to mitigate its impact on the frontline staff serving our communities,” he said.

Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR Professor Chris Whitty added:

"With evidence showing that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are more severely affected by COVID-19, it is critical that we understand what factors are driving this risk to address them effectively.

“The diverse range of projects funded by the NIHR and UKRI will help examine this association in detail, so that new treatments and approaches to care can be developed to target the ethnicities most at risk. This research will have embedded patient and public involvement with Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups at all stages of the research."

Building upon the University’s expertise for developing and delivering online rehabilitation programmes, NHS England announced in July that it is working with Professor Sally Singh, Head of Pulmonary and Cardiac Rehabilitation, on the Your COVID Recovery website - a new project to help rehabilitate thousands of patients across the UK who are recovering from COVID-19. Your COVID Recovery supports patients with ongoing symptoms from coronavirus in their recovery and it is one of the first such services in the world.

The University is also conducting research on the virus itself, determining if it can be stopped by using novel methods such as decoy proteins, uncovering the fact that it can trigger other health conditions, such as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, and understanding the virus’ impact on children.

Professor Nick Brindle’s understanding of how proteins interact with each other at the molecular level has helped facilitate the development of new medications, and his team is currently developing new ways to block the coronavirus by using directed evolution and protein engineering techniques. It is hoped that their work will help us to understand how proteins on the COVID-19 virus interact with cells and cause infection or disease.

Professor Elizabeth Draper is undertaking a number of projects that are monitoring and providing insight into the effect COVID-19 has on pregnancy outcomes and the impact on neonatal and paediatric intensive care. She currently leads the national perinatal surveillance and enquiries for MBRRACE-UK (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK), which is monitoring COVID-19 perinatal outcomes in the UK.

“Our experts have responded to the pandemic by applying their world-changing, curiosity-driven research to the fight. This research has and will continue to save lives, drive innovation and ensure that we are better prepared to respond to the next global health crisis,” Professor Canagarajah added.

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