Meet the scientist specialising in Covid testing technology
- Credit: Rose Davidson
Dr Rose Davidson is a lecturer in nutrition and biomedicine at Norwich Medical School based at UEA on Norwich Research Park and an expert in quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) – a crucial technology in the testing regime for Covid-19. Find out how her work is helping to provide an additional capacity of 4,000 tests per week.
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.
Can you explain the role you normally fulfil?
In my ‘normal’ role, I teach, lecture and research nutrition. I’m a molecular biologist studying sustainable food sources that promote musculoskeletal health. I am currently managing a dietary intervention trial to determine whether a compound found in broccoli called sulforaphane can improve chronic pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis.
I also teach postgraduate students a laboratory technique called reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR), which is a key skill for anyone who wants to do molecular-based lab work. But RT-qPCR also happens to be the gold standard for Covid testing.
How has Covid-19 impacted your work?
When the pandemic hit, we were forced to pause the sulforaphane research trial, so I teamed up with colleagues at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) to develop a Covid-19 diagnostic testing cell, which operates from the Bob Champion Research and Educational Building.
We started developing the test in March 2020 and by sharing our expertise and working collaboratively with colleagues from UEA, Earlham Institute and NNUH, we made rapid progress. By April, we were able to begin offering additional diagnostic testing capacity to the incredible work that the NNUH Microbiology Department perform everyday behind the scenes. We’ve just celebrated our one-year anniversary, having performed around 60,000 tests to date for the NHS and have built our capacity so that it’s now 4,000 tests per week.
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How does qPCR work?
qPCR and RT-qPCR can detect and measure DNA and RNA. This is very useful for investigating whether certain variants of a gene might indicate susceptibility to disease and is also an invaluable tool for medical diagnostic testing such as Covid-19 given its high level of precision and sensitivity.
We work with colleagues at the Quadram Institute to ensure that positive samples are sequenced and flagged up to the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), which is important in the bid to track and trace variants across the country.
What is the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?
When we originally set up the testing cell, it was all volunteers. The response was incredibly heart-warming – hundreds volunteered within days. It became apparent that Covid-19 was not going away any time soon, so we recruited a full-time dedicated team to provide sustainable testing capacity that met the needs of the region. We knew this might be difficult as the whole world wanted molecular biologists. But we were pleased to discover the tenacious and talented people we needed right here on our doorstep.
We developed relationships across the Park – Earlham Institute kindly lent us robots and shared expertise to automate workflow and the Quadram Institute helped us to develop an efficient process to rapidly deliver the positive SARS-CoV-2 samples we had identified for sequencing in real time. The transferable skills, collaborative spirit and willingness of people across the Park to work together even on something that's not directly relevant to their day-today job is outstanding. I've made lots of new friends and colleagues in the last year, as tough as it's been.
How did you end up working here in Norwich?
I grew up in Devon and Cornwall and did my undergraduate degree at Sheffield Hallam University, which involved working for Pfizer in Sandwich, Kent. I moved to Norwich for a PhD studying osteoarthritis, which is close to my heart because members of my family have suffered with it. I’ve been here ever since.
Norfolk is one of those places that once you arrive, you never leave. Now I am looking forward to building my research group here and nurturing the new generation of medical students with a focus on nutrition as preventative medicine.
What do you get up to when you are not working?
I have two rescue dogs – lurchers named Ginkgo and Sumach – and training with my dogs at Aspire Agility in Oxnead is one of my favourite things to do. My husband is a consultant arborist so we named our dogs after trees.
I live near the Broads and enjoy paddle sports, so I spend a lot of time on the water and travel to Wales for white-water canoeing. And I love anything to do with wool. I spin my own yarn, dye it, weave it, knit it, crochet it – anything!
Dr Rose Davidson is a molecular biologist at UEA at Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @RDavidsonLab