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Merlin and Lorna at the RILD Building


Alumni funding to support research in to the relationship between COVID-19 and ageing

PhD student, Merlin Davies (Medical Studies, 2020) is the recipient of a generous gift from an anonymous donor which has enabled his PhD looking at the relationship between COVID-19 and ageing to be fully funded.

Professor of Molecular Genetics, Lorna Harries, first met current PhD student Merlin Davies (Medical Studies, 2020) whilst he was still a school student when he was part of a large Citizen Science project that Lorna undertook to give school students a taste of real life research. Merlin then undertook a degree here at Exeter in Medical Sciences, during which he spent some time in her team on a summer project. The kind support of an anonymous donor has meant that Lorna was able to offer him a PhD studentship and an opportunity to become involved in our COVID-19 research.

Merlin’s PhD is centred on tackling COVID mortality, particularly relating to understanding how old age and the presence of other disease makes people less capable of clearing the virus and susceptible to worse outcomes once infected. His thesis will consist of three chapters.

The first is establishing whether there are any links between COVID-19 severity (how ill a person becomes) and viral load (amount of virus in their system). To do this they have developed a new test for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) which detects not just if a person is carrying virus, but whether the virus is actively dividing in that person’s cells. The second and third pieces of work that he will undertake over the course of his PhD will involve artificially ageing immune cells and exposing them to non-infectious bits of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to compare how young cells and old cells respond in terms of antibody production and cell-based immunity. They have finished the first piece of work and are preparing this paper for publication

Merlin says: “We cannot thank you enough for the impact your support has had on Lorna and I. The paper we are soon to submit for publication will be my first ‘first-author’ paper as a researcher – which is vital to building my early career as a researcher. Our data will have an impact on decisions made clinically regarding COVID-19 cases, particularly for healthcare workers returning to the frontlines and care home patients being able to return to their residencies. Your kind donation is enabling real action on important issues like the recent pandemic, but also provide an opportunity for me to pursue a career in science.”

Merlin and Lorna look forward to being able to thanking the donor in person and showing them the RILD (Research Innovation Learning & Development) building facilities, as well as the work they have been doing, at some point soon.

Date: 15 June 2021

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