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A simulated close-up image of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Helping diagnose and treat COVID-19 more quickly

Published: 22 July 2021

Diagnosing and effectively treating COVID-19 has proven to be a significant challenge. Symptoms are inconsistent - or non existent - and traditional treatment methods for similar flu-like conditions are unreliable. But the DRAGON project aims to solve these problems.

The DRAGON project

The DRAGON project is a €11.5 million EU-funded international consortium for COVID-19 advanced diagnostics. It is collecting samples from patients across Europe, and applying artificial intelligence and bioinformatic techniques to create a system that can inform medical decisions about patient care.

Our role

Our experts in molecular phenotyping are working with spin-out company TopMD Precision Medicine to measure thousands of biomolecules, such as genes and proteins, to study their activity and better understand the disease. This will help doctors by giving them the additional information they need to improve their diagnostic and treatment approaches.

"The first year has been about collecting samples from COVID-19 patients and preparing the analysis pipelines. It was a big piece of work to make sure we got samples from across Europe in the second wave of the pandemic that we had at the end of 2020."

Diana Baralle - professor of genomic medicine and consultant in clinical genetics

Pilot work

We have also been involved in pilot work funded by the National Institute of Health Research. While not formally part of the DRAGON project, the findings from this will greatly assist in its progress.

Dr Tristan Clark has led work to examine the samples taken from COVID-19 patients in Southampton during the first wave of the pandemic. The team collected ribonucleic acid (RNA) and sequenced these in patients, before comparing the results with the clinical features.

Through sequencing, the scientists were able to study the differences in gene expression between normal and infected cells. The aim was to establish whether the sequencing results were different in those who died with COVID-19, compared to those who survived.

The large volume of clinical data highlighted genes that were being activated in patients that were the worst-affected by COVID-19.

"We also compared the COVID samples with samples collected from flu patients, so we could see what inflammation and immunology pathways were being activated specifically by COVID. If you know the pathways, you can determine which treatment options might work and how the virus is causing disease. We saw, for example, that certain infection pathways were being activated in COVID-19 that are not activated in flu."

Diana Baralle - professor of genomic medicine and consultant in clinical genetics

European samples

DRAGON has now collected over 800 samples from COVID-19 patients across Europe. We're working with the University of Liverpool to subject these samples to 'omics' studies (which include genomics and epigenomics) and RNA sequencing tests.

Understanding how the virus is attacking and entering the cells will let us know where we can interfere and stop the pathway.
Diana Baralle
Professor of genomic medicine and consultant in clinical genetics

DRAGON is led by Radiomics, a spin-out company from Maastricht University, which uses artificial intelligence to develop medical products and services with partners around the world. The University and TopMD were awarded funding worth €248,523 and €880,000 respectively for our roles in the project.

DRAGON is funded by the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking, which receives support from Horizon 2020 and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.

Related publications

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Stephen Poole,
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, 2022 , Journal of Infection , 84 (4) , 558--565
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Yunpeng Zhao,
Yiran Li,
, 2021 , Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences , 8
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