A cautious return – dementia researchers head back to the lab


By Fiona Calvert | Monday 20 July 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact across all walks of life in the UK, including scientific research. Back in March we updated you on how dementia research was adapting to the new normal. Many labs had to temporarily close and, while some studies had to stop, dementia scientists continued to work from home like so many others.

Now, as governments across the UK begin to ease restrictions, labs are starting to re-open and research that your support helps to fund is restarting. However, this process is complex and looks different for every lab and region.

How are scientists staying safe?

Like every workplace running during this time, social distancing is a key part of re-opening plans. Limiting the number of people in spaces is the first step to making this possible. Many of the institutes that our researchers work in are using shift systems to try and maximise the number of scientists that can restart their work while ensuring safety remains a priority.

But it’s not just space that researchers share. Much of the vital equipment that enables them to carry out their experiments is communal, which potentially poses a coronavirus risk. This means all the shared spaces must be booked in advance, leaving plenty of time not only to carry out experiments but ensure proper cleaning can take place before the next user.

Prof Michael Coleman’s lab at the University of Cambridge re-opened with limited capacity at the end of June. As well as shifts, one-way systems, and limits on the number of people in any one room, those using the lab facilities have agreed to strict cleaning policies. All workspaces, including lab benches and shared equipment, will be cleaned before and after each use and further enhanced cleaning will be carried out 2-3 times a day.

Prof Coleman’s lab return

Find out more about Prof Coleman’s lab return by watching this ITV Anglia piece

Labs are usually busy places, with researchers moving in and out throughout the day. Scientists are often working on multiple experiments at once, discussing their ongoing results with their colleagues and working on their laptops during breaks in their experiments.

But now things will look very different. Not only are numbers restricted, many institutions have also put “lab work only” rules in place.  This means researchers continue to work from home whenever possible.

Dr Katie Askew, at the University of Edinburgh, works with mice to understand how reduced blood flow impacts the brain. Her work requires regular welfare checks, even on days when she does not need to be in the lab for other experiments. For Dr Askew, this means some days she travels to and from the lab multiple times.

UK DRI at Cardiff

A much quieter lab than normal at the UK DRI at Cardiff, microscopes are being switched back on at the University of York, restrictions on the number of people in rooms are in place at the University of Edinburgh and strict social distancing guidelines are seen at King’s College London.

The new rules mean that lab work now requires extra planning from researchers. Scientists across different teams will have to carefully coordinate their schedules to ensure rules are being followed. For some this means working at a much-reduced capacity, like Dr Beatriz Gomez Perez-Nievas from Kings College London whose lab can only initially return at 20% capacity.

How do our researchers feel about being back in the lab?

Despite labs looking a little different, our scientists are pleased to be able to return and pick up their pipettes again! Researchers like Dr Steven Quinn have switched their microscopes back on and have already started seeing their first exciting experimental results.

Dr Claire Durrant, a Race Against Dementia Dyson Fellow, was extra careful on her lab return, making sure all her equipment was ready to get up and running again. As everything had been switched off for a long time it was important that she gave it all a deep clean before restarting any work, as contamination can affect her experiments.

Dr Daniel Erskine, Dr Claire Durrant, Dr Steven Quinn, Dr Katie Askew and Dr Beatriz Gomez Perez-Nievas’ lab.

Dr Daniel Erskine, Dr Claire Durrant, Dr Steven Quinn, Dr Katie Askew and Dr Beatriz Gomez Perez-Nievas’ lab.

Dr Beatriz Gomez Perez-Nievas, knows that organisation is going to be key as her lab starts to return and even though the process has been complicated, everyone is very excited to be back!

Dr Katie Askew and Dr Claire Durrant have also seen other positives from their return to the lab. Dr Askew’s lab has had virtual lab meetings and coffee breaks to keep in touch, but nothing can quite compare to seeing lab mates in person again, even if it is from a distance. New shift patterns and ways of working have created a weird new rhythm for Dr Durrant’s lab, and she has even surprised herself by enjoying her 7am starts!

What does this mean for dementia research going forward?

As for many workplaces, the coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot about how research looks day-to-day. But as always, dementia scientists are determined to continue with their vital work and are excited to be back restarting experiments that were put on pause.

Labs re-opening is a positive step back towards normality for scientists, but it is important to recognise that this situation is still far from normal. Some researchers will have enough space within their lab to return at almost full capacity, others will have to prioritise their experiments and work at reduced levels.

The ongoing situation across the UK also means that not everyone will be able to return to the lab. Those with care responsibilities or researchers in vulnerable groups may not have the flexibility to go back to work just yet.

It is difficult to fully understand or predict the full impact COVID-19 will have on dementia research. Not only has the pandemic changed the way scientists work but it has also impacted the funding they rely on.

Alzheimer’s Research UK is predicting that income may fall by up to 45%. In order to protect the commitments we have already made, Alzheimer’s Research UK has made the incredibly difficult decision to postpone the funding of any new research. For some researchers now returning to the lab, this means future projects could be in doubt. Now more than ever, we need your help to continue to fund world-leading dementia research and make breakthroughs possible.

With thanks to:

Dr Steven Quinn (University of York), Dr Katie Askew (University of Edinburgh), Dr Claire Durrant (University of Edinburgh), Prof Michael Coleman/Olivia Sheppard (University of Cambridge), Dr Beatriz Gomez Perez-Nievas (Kings College London), Dr Daniel Erskine (Newcastle University) and Dr Meghan Larin/Emma Randall (UK DRI at Cardiff)


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About the author

Fiona Calvert

Team: Science news