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Keele Uni staff volunteer at Cheshire testing 'mega lab'

Three Keele University workers have volunteered to join a team of experts driving the UK’s effort to increase coronavirus testing.

The Government has opened three Lighthouse ‘mega-labs’ across the country, including the Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park, led by Medicines Discovery Catapult.

Dr Jade Perry and Dr John Garcia, researchers at Keele University, and final year PhD student Mairead Hyland have volunteered to help at the Alderley Park lab, where they test tens of thousands of samples for Covid-19 infection.

In the UK, tests are conducted by taking a swab of the nose and throat which are then sent to a lab where skilled volunteers from across the scientific community spot signs of the virus' genetic material. 

The three volunteers, normally based in the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, all have a science background with the expertise and experience needed for their new roles and have completed their training to work in the new labs.

Dr Perry said: “When we received the initial contact from the National Testing Programme, I immediately volunteered my services. In these unprecedented times, any opportunity to contribute to the safety of the public and the betterment of society is a privilege and something that I am delighted to be a part of. 

“Following the intensive training programme, I am now helping to train new volunteers.  It’s difficult to articulate quite how welcoming and personable the incredible team at the Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab are, and I have an immense sense of pride that I am part of their tireless efforts to combat this pandemic.”    

Dr Garcia, a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Regenerative Medicine, said: “This has been a tremendous experience for me. When the call was sent for scientists to help in the Covid-19 testing centres, I did not hesitate to offer my skills.

"My job in the testing lab is to work in a special biosafety cabinet to carefully transfer the potentially infected samples to a unique device in preparation for PCR, a machine which amplifies viral genetic material. 

“This is a very meticulous process; concentrating for lengthy periods of time while doing very precise movements. I have been particularly impressed at how calm, friendly and helpful everyone is, especially towards the trainees. I feel humbled and proud to be helping the fight against this pandemic.” 

Before the outbreak Mairead, a final year PhD student at Keele University, was researching new treatment methods for rheumatoid arthritis.

Mairead said: “I wanted to get involved in Covid-19 testing because I had lab skills that I wasn’t currently using and felt they could easily be applied to this programme. I also understood that there was a great need to increase testing in the UK and I want to play my part to help with the national effort. 

“There is a sense of achievement amongst the team. I’m very appreciative that I get to work in a state-of-the-art facility with colleagues that are very friendly and open to helping everyone to ensure that things run smoothly. We have all chosen to be there and take pride that we are helping out during the coronavirus pandemic so there is a positive atmosphere in the labs.”

Professor Peter Simpson, Chief Scientific Officer, Medicines Discovery Catapult and Head of Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab, said: “The Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab has been set up at an unprecedented pace and scale to respond to an urgent national need. 

“This would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of all the scientific volunteers from research charities, universities, and industry, who have stepped forward to collaborate and utilise their skills in the fight against COVID-19. The volunteers from Keele University are a welcome addition to the team, and we can’t thank them enough for their continued commitment.”

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