Pandemic management: How I’m using a human biobank to help fight Covid-19

Woman standing at stable with horse

Lizzie Meadows is Biorepository Project Manager at the Quadram Institute on Norwich Research Park - Credit: Lizzie Meadows

Lizzie Meadows, Biorepository Project Manager at the Quadram Institute on Norwich Research Park, explains how her work project managing a library of human tissue samples is contributing to the national effort against Covid-19.

Woman climbing Mount Everest

Lizzie loves the mountains and has trekked the Himalayas - Credit: Lizzie Meadows

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 your role involve?

I am responsible for project managing Norwich Research Park’s Biorepository to create a state-of-the-art, world-class facility. I lead teams from the Quadram Institute, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) and University of East Anglia (UEA). I also provide project management support to the Quadram Institute’s genome sequencing team who are contributing to the national effort as part of the national Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COGUK).

What is the Biorepository?

The Biorepository is a tissue bank. Think of it like a library of human tissue samples that scientists use for medical research. People donate tissue samples from biopsies and medical procedures, which are stored securely and ethically. Researchers then use those samples to help improve our knowledge of diseases and develop treatments and diagnostics.

Our samples support biomedical research by helping cancer researchers develop tests for prostate cancer, for example, or exploring how the transmission of beneficial gut microbes from pregnant women affects the health of their babies.

Since March 2020, the Biorepository has played a key role alongside the Quadram Institute's genome sequencing team to match positive Covid-19 results and provide data for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and Public Health England. Our work helps to analyse how the virus is changing and directly influences pandemic management at a national level.

The Quadram Institute’s Covid-19 genomic detective work is reliant on getting the metadata needed to make the sequencing results meaningful. Metadata is the basic demographic information about the people whose samples have been taken. Their age, sex and geography are vital in terms of understanding how the virus is moving and how it can be tackled.

Norwich Research Park’s Biorepository team are experts at securely providing the metadata needed to make sense of the sequencing work. The combination of the Quadram Institute’s bioscience expertise and the skills of the Biorepository team has made Norwich one of the best performing sequencing centres in the world.

How has the pandemic influenced your work?

I joined the Quadram Institute in February 2020 and at that point Covid-19 was just beginning to spread into Europe. We had a deadline to deliver the Biorepository’s new automated lab information system in March. Having to adapt to remote working and a virtual launch was extremely challenging, but we went live on Monday March 23 – the same day the country went into lockdown.

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Going live in the middle of a pandemic was tough, but with the excellent efforts of the Biorepository team we got the job done against the odds. Without a doubt, this is the work I am most proud of in my career.

How did you end up working here in Norwich?

Originally, I trained as a nurse and specialised in cardiothoracics at Royal Brompton Hospital and Oxford Heart Centre but I have always loved art and chose to pursue a degree in History of Art at UEA and went on to work at Christie’s, the international auction house, and Modern Art Oxford.

My family moved to Norfolk 15 years ago because we thought it would be a good place to raise children, and I started in a project management role at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust. When I saw the vacancy for my current role, I knew it was my dream job.

What is the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

Working at the Park has been the most fantastic experience. I am living proof that there are opportunities even if you do not have a science background and there is great opportunity to collaborate.

I am currently working with King’s College London, NNUH and Norfolk and Waveney Sustainability and Transformation Partnership on an AI-driven big data extraction tool called CogStack – described as ‘Google for doctors’ – to help research opportunities and provide cost-efficiency benefits for Norfolk’s healthcare community.

Two women trekking Himalayas

Lizzie Meadows enjoys flying vintage aviation in her spare time and has trekked the Himalayas - Credit: Lizzie Meadows

What do you get up to when you are not working?

I love any excuse to get up into the mountains and have trekked the Himalayas. I also love skiing and flying vintage aircraft, but right now in lockdown I just love being in Norfolk.

We have two Jack Russell Terriers and I share a horse with my daughter. I grew up on a farm in Derbyshire and have had horses all my life. I also sit on the board of the Equine Grass Sickness Fund – a charity that supports research into this horrible disease that affects horses. EGSF in partnership with the Moredun Foundation will launch a biobank later this year and I hope my experience will be useful.

Lizzie Meadows is Biorepository Project Manager at the Quadram Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @lizziemeadows

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