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Meet the scientist cracking the coronavirus code

PUBLISHED: 11:00 11 July 2020 | UPDATED: 09:32 13 July 2020

'Norwich Research Park has an excellent opportunity to use the pandemic to showcase what it is we do here,' says Justin O'Grady, a scientist from Norwich Research Park         Picture: Jason Bye

'Norwich Research Park has an excellent opportunity to use the pandemic to showcase what it is we do here,' says Justin O'Grady, a scientist from Norwich Research Park Picture: Jason Bye

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Justin O’Grady, group leader at Quadram Institute and associate professor in Medical Microbiology at the University of East Anglia (UEA), is an expert on the rapid diagnosis of infection. Here he explains how his research is helping to track and trace the transmission of COVID-19 through sequencing the coronavirus virus genome.

Justin O’'Grady is group leader at Quadram Institute and associate professor in Medical Microbiology at UEA       Picture: Jason ByeJustin O’'Grady is group leader at Quadram Institute and associate professor in Medical Microbiology at UEA Picture: Jason Bye

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I run a research group where we focus on diagnosing pathogens, which are bad bacteria that cause infection. My typical day involves developing new sequencing based methods in the lab to quickly detect pathogens in clinical samples.

Typically I work in the health sector on serious diseases like pneumonia and sepsis, but we try to maximise community and patient benefits by translating this research to different sectors. Due to the coronavirus outbreak I have transferred my skills and am applying my expertise in diagnostics and sequencing to COVID-19.

Early on in the outbreak I helped to develop a diagnostic test with colleagues at the UEA’s Bob Champion Research and Educational Building that is being used to help the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) with the high volume of samples that need to be tested..

What’s been your involvement in the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK)?

‘As a family we love to spend time on the beaches of the north Norfolk coast,’ says Justin, who is originally from Sligo on the west coast of Ireland         Picture: Justin O'Grady‘As a family we love to spend time on the beaches of the north Norfolk coast,’ says Justin, who is originally from Sligo on the west coast of Ireland Picture: Justin O'Grady

COG-UK is a consortium of 16 different sites across the UK including universities, research institutes and public health agencies. It was established to fully understand how the coronavirus was introduced to the UK and how it is being transmitted.

In order to understand how outbreaks are occurring locally, we need to be able to tell the difference between one type of the virus and another. The best way to do that is using viral genome sequencing. Think of it like making a family tree of the virus as it moves around. If one particular person has one particular type of the virus and gives it to another person, those two people will share the same type. If two people have different types of the virus, then they didn’t pass it on to each other. This information is very useful when investigating outbreaks.

How does sequencing help to tackle coronavirus?

All living things are made up of nucleic acids, with the two main classes being deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). These acids are broken down into a code of letters: As, Cs, Gs and Ts. Each biological organism has a unique code – the coronavirus RNA code is 30,000 letters long (the human DNA code is 6 billion letters)!

The idea is to sequence, or read the code of, as many genomes as possible to identify the different types of the virus and build the family tree. Then when a number of coronavirus cases are detected in a factory, for example, we can tell if the staff have passed it on to one another or not. We can then work with public health experts in the Test and Trace programme to intervene and stop transmission in the most effective way.

How has coronavirus impacted Norwich Research Park?

The global pandemic has brought the Park even closer together and relations between the institutes and hospital are stronger than ever. During the pandemic I’ve worked with people at the John Innes Centre, Earlham Institute, NNUH and of course the UEA.

Norwich Research Park has an excellent opportunity to use the pandemic to showcase what it is we do here, to engage with the public more and demonstrate that our work is important, useful and has real-world applications.

A lot of people have this conception of the academic ivory tower. It really isn’t like that. We’re just normal people who do some interesting work, which is sometimes quite topical!

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

I was actually offered a job in Edinburgh and a job in Norwich at the same time. After visiting Norwich, I thought it was a very attractive city similar to where I went to university in Galway in Ireland. My wife and I loved it and moved up from London in January 2013.

My favourite thing is how close everything is. The fact that all the institutes are co-located makes collaboration really easy. Sometimes the close proximity means you share a building with someone working on something that you both have in common, which you never would have realised if you were separated by more physical distance.

Also, the quality of the research environment and the calibre of scientists on Norwich Research Park has helped my career massively.

What do you get up to when you are not at work?

I love sports. I cycle to work every day and play a lot of golf. I’ve been extremely busy during the coronavirus outbreak so it’s brilliant to be able to get outside and just have some time to de-stress.

Justin O’Grady is group leader at Quadram Institute and associate professor in Medical Microbiology at UEA. You can follow him on Twitter @Justin_OGrady


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