THREE Glasgow cancer scientists are using their expertise to support the national effort to tackle Covid-19.

Part of a team of volunteers from across the city’s research community, the researchers from the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute are using their expert knowledge and skills to set up a major coronavirus testing facility in the city at record speed.

And they say working on such an innovative project will help forward their cancer research with new expertise they will apply in their own labs.

Dr Lynn McGarry, Dr Grant McGregor and Dr Natasha Malik were among the first six scientist volunteers who arrived on site tasked with setting up the facility in just three weeks to process thousands of COVID-19 tests every day.

Hosted by Glasgow University at their Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Campus, the Lighthouse Laboratory is part of the biggest network of diagnostic testing facilities in British history.

Grant, from Partick, said: “It was empty when we first went in, there was nothing.

"There were the machines which would analyse the test samples, but that was it really. Kit came from all over the university.

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"People were just asked... “we need something along these lines, can you spare it?” and, the day after we started, boxes started turning up packed full of equipment.”

Natasha, 28, also from Partick, added: “All the resources that we got in such a short time, it was phenomenal.

"The amount that we did in just three weeks was just amazing. It was mind-boggling.”

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The Lighthouse Laboratory opened on Wednesday, April 22 to test samples from patients, NHS staff and frontline workers for COVID-19.

Since opening, the testing centre has processed more than 200,000 samples.

For Grant and Natasha, their ‘normal’ day job at Glasgow’s Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute is to study breast cancer, and how certain molecules in breast cancer cells help the disease to spread.

Lynn, 55, from Paisley, is a principal scientific officer and provides technical expertise and support on techniques including screening and imaging to scientists across the institute to help progress their research.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the work of cancer researchers across the country as a result of social distancing measures to reduce the spread of the virus.

Universities have partially closed, laboratories have had to wind down their activities, and experiments have stopped.

While many researchers continue to work productively from home by writing papers, analysing data, pulling together collaborations, reading the literature and generating ideas, some scientists have volunteered to work at Covid-19 testing hubs across the UK and apply their expert knowledge to help with the technical work to analyse patient samples for the virus.

Natasha said: “I just wanted to help in whatever way I could. I know this is a really tough time for everyone and I thought, if I have the skills and I can do something, I want to do it."

Lynn added: “I just wanted to get involved. When the testing started to get talked about, we were looking online to see what the test was, and how we thought we could run it in the lab.

"Then the next thing was, the opportunity came up to actually go and do it.”

The three cancer scientists, together with other researchers from across Glasgow University, quickly established an efficient ‘production line’ for processing samples arriving in to the Lighthouse Lab, from unpacking the nose and throat swabs, to transferring samples from the swabs, to extracting genetic material from the samples.

The final stage of the process is analysing the genetic material on specialist equipment called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, which identifies the presence of COVID-19.

PCR machines are frequently used in cancer research, but for a very different purpose, such as examining DNA in tumour samples.

As well as volunteers, the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute has also donated four PCR machines, and other specialist equipment to the Glasgow Lighthouse Lab.

Grant said: "The first test plate we processed, and the first plate of patient samples, were run on one of the Beatson machines.

"I’m quite proud of that actually.”

All of the staff in the Glasgow Lighthouse Lab have to wear full PPE, which includes a surgical gown, two pairs of gloves, surgical mask and a visor or goggles.

She said: “As I was leaving, I saw an elderly man being brought in the entrance for COVID patients – there’s a special entrance at the hospital. It really brought it home to me that it’s real. We’re in a sort of bubble in the lab, and then you come out and see a patient and you realise, this is real lives being affected.

“The good thing is, for every negative sample we see, that’s potentially somebody who can go back to work so there’s more people available to care for those who need it.”

With the lab fully operational, Lynn, Grant and Natasha are now working on processing COVID-19 tests coming in from across the country.

But their cancer research is never far from their minds.

Lynn said: “It’s quite concerning how much of a hit Cancer Research UK is taking funding-wise as a result of the pandemic and fundraising events being cancelled.

"Going forward, we don’t know how bad it’s going to get. I like all the alternative methods of fundraising people are doing, like Race For Life At Home.

"I hope that people will sign up to things like this and continue to support the charity if they can so we can get back to beating cancer when this is over.”

Around a quarter of the scientist volunteers carrying out Covid-19 testing at the Glasgow Lighthouse Laboratory are from the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute.

Owen Sansom, Director of the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, said: "I am incredibly proud of all our staff and scientists from the institute who have volunteered to put their expert skills and talent to use at the Glasgow Lighthouse Laboratory to help our NHS colleagues and the COVID-19 response.

"Cancer won’t be going away during or after COVID-19 but, by helping the global effort to tackle the virus, we hope we can get back to beating cancer as soon as possible."