Since 2019, we have worked in partnership with the research office to offer research fellowships of up to £50,000 to non-medical professionals in our hospitals. These grants help our researchers develop their skills and maintain Royal Brompton & Harefield hospitals’ status as world leaders in heart and lung care.

The three grant awardees selected this year by a panel of experts and advisors are: Karina Lopes, who aims to improve diagnosis of diseased arteries in foetuses, Dr Carmel Stock, who wants to better predict the likelihood a patient with Scleroderma will go on to develop interstitial lung disease and Andreia Pinto, who will be researching how Covid-19 infects cells.

We spoke to Andreia to find out how her research would aid in the global effort to understand Covid-19.

How long have you worked at Royal Brompton and what does your role entail?

I am a primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD) specialist and before coming to Royal Brompton I had been working in Portugal. In June 2019, I moved to the UK and started working at Royal Brompton, excited for the opportunity to increase my own knowledge and contribute what I know towards research into PCD. It was a new adventure.

Primary ciliary dyskinesia is a genetic disease which affects cilia, which are hairlike structures that exist in the body. The function of cilia is most noticeable in our airways. Healthy cilia lined airways, beat together to catch and clear impurities and pathogens away from the lungs.

In people with PCD who have abnormal cilia, mucus and debris is not cleared from the airway which can make you very sick (cough, rhinorrhoea, ear impairment). Abnormal cilia in the airways lead to the accumulation of mucus which might lead to infection and pulmonary chronic disease. 

We carry out research to help detect PCD easily and give our patients the fast track to treatment. That’s my job here; to make this diagnosis better.

How does your cilia research overlap with research into Covid-19?

Coronavirus loves to attach itself to ciliated cells. In my research (mainly on PCD) I use an electron microscope to analyse of these ciliated cells and their cilia, this microscope has the power magnify as high as 100,000 times. My observations are used to teach an artificial intelligence (Ai) machine to recognise patterns in structure so I can differentiate between normal and abnormal cilia. It is also my aim to challenge the Ai system with images of coronavirus, distinguishing it from other structures in the cell.

At Royal Brompton we can culture cells for research. The sampling is done by nasal brushing, that resembles a nasal swab. After swabbing a patient, the collected cells can be seeded to grow in a special medium like they would do in the nose. They “think”: ‘oh, this is a very nice environment. I'll grow here.’ While the cells are growing on a controlled environment, they can be manipulated. We can infect them with several pathogens and see how they respond, and this includes Coronavirus. We can see where the virus wants to go as it travels inside the cells without the response of an immune system.

Parallel to the infected cultures, we have a lot of samples to work with that were sampled from patients during the pandemic, which are absolutely priceless. Good samples that we can just explore and compare with the in vitro infected cells.

What do you hope to achieve with this grant? 

Ultimately, better healthcare and getting people targeted treatments. My view as a scientist is that more knowledge leads to more research, more questions, and even better outcomes. 

How will your research benefit patients?

Improvements to healthcare made as a result of research are not often instantaneous. If I learn how the virus is affecting these ciliated cells, there may be a way to make it more difficult for the virus to get inside the cells and help more people avoid getting ill.

Right now, for example, we only have vaccines to help us fight Covid-19, but in the future, it might be possible to generate other less invasive preventative treatments. This would provide an option for people who are unsure about the vaccine. Also, our research might impact how treatments are delivered.

What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

All of it is very rewarding. I do love working in science and using these incredible machines to produce great work. I like to talk about it with people and to help them understand exactly what we do here.

I enjoy training people as well and making them as excited about what we're doing here as I am.

How do you feel about receiving this grant from the charity?

I am honoured. It was a wonderful surprise and I know that this project is not only fascinating but it's also essential. We need to invest in this research now and produce results.

Most of all, I’m very proud of the team I’m working with. We all need a team; we all need colleagues that help us. We also need the fellow scientists globally who are working on Covid-19 and sharing what they know. This collaboration has been especially important through the pandemic.

I'm very happy my project has been recognised in this way and I'll work for it with all my heart.

Following this project, what’s next?

Hopefully more exciting projects. If it makes sense to take this coronavirus research further, I will.

When we're doing research and especially when you use a microscope like this sometimes you find things that you weren't expecting and that leads you to a different branch of research. My findings through this research may inform treatments for other lung diseases or improve recovery for Covid-19 patients.

We still don't know exactly where this research will lead us, but that's the beauty of it.

It is through the generosity of our donors and supporters that we can fund essential research to not only improve outcomes for patients in our hospitals, but also inform the treatment of patients with lung disease everywhere. Play your part in our mission to treat and beat lung disease.