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COVID-19 vaccine diaries: part two, safety first

Justine is a participant in Imperial’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial – here she discusses how the trial is progressing. 


“Am I immune?” “Could I be immune?”

These are questions that have been unavoidably circling in my head ever since I received an experimental coronavirus vaccine as part of a clinical trial led by Imperial College London. 

Every time I exercise, take public transport, do my weekly food shop, socialise with those close to me, I’ve been trying to quash this invisible shield that part of my brain believes might be there, shrugging off any potential encounters with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

I didn’t enter this trial so that I’d get a free pass to behave irresponsibly in the midst of a pandemic, which is frighteningly rearing its ugly head again in my home country. I always knew that immunity was never a certainty, having never been tested in human beings before. I was more confident that it wasn’t a dangerous thing for me to do, and certain that it was a good thing to do. 

And by participating, I have certainly helped to prove both of these latter points. I’ve had two shots of the vaccine, which works by instructing my cells to make fragments of the coronavirus, thereby prompting my immune system to react and, hopefully, keep a protective memory of the threat. I’ve had no side effects at all; not even a sore arm. The devil on my shoulder sort of wished for even a little redness where the needle went in, that I could wear proudly as a mark of my contribution to research.  (more…)

Researching remote medicine from our own homes

Student group pictured on a field trip to the Brecon Beacons pre-Covid-19

Our BSc in Remote Medicine for intercalating medical students focuses on exploring medicine in remote and low-resource environments.

Normally students would have an opportunity to travel to the Nepali Himalayas to carry out a research project. With the expedition cancelled due to Covid-19, four remote medicine students discuss how they adapted their research projects.


Carmen

For my original research project, I chose to investigate sleep during an expedition to high altitude. Previous research has shown that human error is the leading cause of mountaineering accidents and at sea-level, sleep deprivation increases the risk of accidents due to human error. Therefore, my aim was to determine the contribution of the mountaineering environment to poor sleep and impaired cognitive performance on an expedition to altitude – using a reaction time application as a surrogate marker for cognitive function. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the planned expedition to Nepal was cancelled and so I devised a pilot study to test the reaction time application I wanted to use at altitude remotely with a small group of participants simulating a night slept at altitude in their own homes. (more…)

How we completed our BSc research projects remotely

Three medical students reflect on how they navigated and completed their intercalated BSc research projects remotely amid the pandemic.


Ioannis Panselinas, BSc Translational Respiratory Medicine

Had someone told me back at the start of 2020 what the year would have in store, I would have probably said that they had stolen ideas from an Orwellian dystopia. Yet the world is currently in the grips of one of the most terrible pandemics in living memory. And among all the global disruption were us 4th year Imperial medics having to face a transition to remote working in the middle of project period. Unsurprisingly, lab work cannot be done from the comfort of our homes. So, as COVID-19 hit the UK, we were forced to cut short our experiments and were ultimately left with a looming deadline and a project to complete.  In retrospect, I think I can sum up my experience with the 5 stages of COVID disruption:

Denial, Bargaining, Panic, Depression, Acceptance. (more…)

COVID-19 vaccine diaries: part one, my first dose

Justine is taking part in Imperial’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial – here she shares her experience of receiving the first dose.


It’s a strange feeling that as I write this, the cells in my arm are reading a message that scientists planted there just hours ago. 

That message – a strip of genetic code – contains the recipe for making part of the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2. This is the ‘spike’ protein that the virus uses to lock on to cells and invade them. The hope is that by telling my cells to churn out this molecule, my immune system will launch an effective and lasting response that could make me immune to the coronavirus. 

That’s the theory, anyway; we won’t know whether this experimental vaccine works until scientists have carried out rigorous clinical studies and gathered enough data to be confident of how safe and effective it is. And today I was part of that clinical research. 

I’m one of 120 people who have so far been selected to take part in one of the earliest phases of a clinical trial that’s testing Imperial’s newly-developed coronavirus vaccine. As soon as I spotted that the trial was recruiting participants, I immediately slotted my details into the online form to express my interest in joining, and eagerly awaited a response. (more…)

‘We answered the call to volunteer at the Lighthouse ‘mega-lab’ for COVID-19 testing’

The team of volunteers celebrating reaching 1 million samples tested. (Image credit: UK Biocentre)

Four Imperial researchers recount their experiences of volunteering at one of the mega-labs built to scale up COVID-19 testing in the UK.


Since March, the UK Biocentre laboratories located in Milton Keynes has become one of four Lighthouse Labs (the others are in Glasgow, Alderley Park in Cheshire and Cambridge) – the largest network of diagnostic testing facilities in British history. Every day the team process and analyse around 30,000 swab samples from across the country to test for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. They use a combination of manual processing and high-throughput robots to inactivate the viral samples, extract the RNA and analyse them with a technique known as quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to detect the presence of the virus.

The UK Biocentre labs were uniquely placed to help in the testing efforts, as in normal life they are usually home to around 30 staff processing and archiving clinical samples from hospitals around the UK. 200 volunteers across academia, civil service and industry answered a call to support with COVID-19 testing, including several PhD students and postdocs from Imperial. As their secondments draw to a close, we speak to some of the volunteers to hear about their experience: (more…)

The unsung heroes of Bergen-Belsen

Group photograph of the Westminster Medical School students who travelled to Bergen-Belsen (Credit: Wellcome Images)

The 75th anniversary of our students volunteering in the war.


In April 1945, just before the Second World War ended, nearly 100 medical students from across London volunteered to support the British army. In this group, there were students from St Mary’s Medical School and Westminster Medical School, two of the schools that formed Imperial College School of Medicine. 75 years on, we want to share their stories and celebrate their courage. (more…)

What is neurodiversity and why STEM organisations should embrace it

Siena with Sally Phillips at Shine a Light Awards 2019

Siena Castellon, a 16-year-old award-winning autism advocate, makes the case for why diversity should be expanded to include neurodiversity.


Most universities have embraced diversity. They recognise that having students and faculty with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives leads to increased creativity, innovation and productivity. However, most universities, focus their diversity initiatives on race, ethnicity and gender. Universities also prioritise initiatives that aim to improve social mobility, which is why many of the STEM work placements or summer school programs are only available to students from low-income families. Although it is important to address the under-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic students (BME), women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is just as important to include people who are neurodivergent – a minority group that is often forgotten. (more…)

Going with our guts to find new treatments: faecal microbiota transplantation at Imperial

Dr Ben Mullish and Dr Julie McDonald explore the ins and outs of faecal microbiota transplants – it may sound unpleasant but this procedure is proving to be an effective way of treating chronic gut infections.


Most of us can name (or may have had first-hand experience of) a number of different bacteria that can cause serious gut infections, such as Salmonella or Campylobacter.  However, what is less well-known is that we also have billions of bacteria living in our guts that normally do us no harm at all.  Some actually have important contributions towards our health – including prevention of bacterial pathogens entering our gut and causing infections.  Collectively, this huge population of microorganisms living inside our digestive tracts is often referred to as the ‘gut microbiota’.  If anything happens to us that disturbs or kills off members of this gut microbiota – such as exposure to antibiotics, or surgery – then we have greater vulnerability to gut infections, and particularly from a form of bacteria called Clostridium difficile. (more…)

Grandfather of allergy: Dr William Frankland, the 106-year-old doctor

Dr William (Bill) Frankland, aged 106, has helped transform our understanding of allergies during his long career in medicine. A pioneer in the field, Dr Frankland popularised the pollen count to help clinicians and patients understand what triggers their seasonal allergies. Originally published on the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust blog and reproduced here with permission, he reflects on his career and working for the NHS for 70 years. 


People often ask me, how is it that I’ve lived until 106. All I can say is I’ve come close to death so many times but somehow I’ve always managed to miss it and that’s why I’m still here.

I was born in 1912, six weeks early. My identical twin brother and I weighed three pounds one ounce each but we both survived – he died in 1995, at age 83. As an early baby, that’s the first time I survived against the odds.

I first encountered hay fever when I was a child. I grew up in the Lake District where my brother and I spent our summers helping a local farmer with his hay. One day, I told my brother my eyes were itchy and I couldn’t go on. “You’re feeble,” he said. It took me 30 years before I realised I had a real problem with summer hay fever and about 90 years to grow out of that allergy.

(more…)

Smoke and the burnout of muscles

Image: Shutterstock - SMOKE & THE BURNOUT OF MUSCLESFor World No Tabaco Day 2017, researchers from Imperial’s Muscle Lab provide an insight into how smoking takes its toll on our lung health. 


Smoking is a leading cause of preventable death and disease in the world. It is estimated that the society costs associated with smoking are approximately ₤12.9 billion a year, including the NHS cost of treating smoking related diseases and loss of productivity.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the major diseases caused by smoking. The disease ranks third among the leading causes of death worldwide. Around 1.2 million Britons suffer from the disease (Source: British Lung Foundation). The usual clinical picture is that of a smoker with symptoms that include shortness of breath and chronic cough. (more…)