University of Dundee

David Gray Q&A

Born in Glasgow, David Gray is Head of Biology for the Drug Discovery Unit and a Professor of Translational Biology. Since March, alongside his day to day role at the University of Dundee, David has been involved in the establishment and running of the Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow alongside Stuart McElroy and Phil Jones from BioAscent.

When were you approached to be involved in the Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow and why?

It was probably around the middle of March.  I think I was asked as it's a very small community that has the right skill set to set up high throughput labs quickly.  I have worked with a lot of people who were involved in setting up the Lighthouse labs around the country as most of them are ex-industry. In the initial Glasgow team I worked with Stuart McElroy and Phil Jones who are both ex-Dundee University employees when they were with the  European Lead Factory down at Newhouse, and are now with Bioascent.

How do you set up a lab such as this?

The fact that it's a diagnostic lab is relatively irrelevant. It's how do you get samples in and how do you validate that you are getting good quality results out the back end of it? How do you get the informatics to flow in a way that allows you to get data to the people that need to get that data as quickly as you possibly can?

The thought and planning at this stage is critical – mistakes here can be very limiting. For example, if you need to put 40 PCR machines into the facility, you've got to deal with the heat they generate.

When we started, the lab was a bare shell. We had huge amounts of support from the University of Glasgow, there's some real heroes, particularly Paul Fairie, over there in terms of getting the labs fit for purpose.

We sourced a lot of the machines that we're using initially from companies and academic institutions. When the call went out for equipment through official and some unofficial channels, the response we had was amazing. Anybody I picked up the phone, too, and said we need help was basically saying what you need? how do I get it to you?

What challenges have you encountered?

A lot of it is logistics problems associated with scale. It's relatively easy to work with one sample but what happens when you need to deal with 50,000 a day?

The biggest problem sounds trivial.  How do you get the number of samples unpacked safely and quickly. The samples are packed in multiple bags, then within boxes that may also be bagged.  It’s easy to visualize the amount of work in doing this and disposing of the waste.  Out best innovation is a device that can be used safely in a class 2 containment hood to rapidly unbag the samples.

How does the Lighthouse Lab Network work with the NHS testing labs?

We have had great support from the local NHS testing lab in Glasgow who have helped us with our quality assurance and validation.  We are absolutely not a competitor to the NHS labs. We are a complement as we're not doing the same thing and both approaches and capacity are critically needed at this time.

The Lighthouse Labs provide a way of providing high throughput sampling of keyworkers and others in the community.  Our aim is to get key workers back to work because we know they don't have coronavirus. We're also able to rapidly sample in areas encountering a spike in infection as happened in Dumfries and Galloway or specific carehomes.

How does the Lighthouse Lab Network work?

We've always taken samples from England and we're taking samples from Northern Ireland as well as all parts of Scotland including the islands. The network allows the load to be shared in a way that keeps the turnaround time for delivering data as short as possible. As an example, as specific areas experience increases in infection, the load on a particular Lighthouse Lab can increase to deal with it which may overload its capacity.  Samples can the be directed to the other labs to balance this load.

What are the next steps that are being taken to sustain the Lighthouse labs in the coming months?

We're now at the point that some of the initial lab based volunteers are moving back into their normal jobs. There is an intensive effort to recruit and retrain replacements to maintain the quality and capacity. Key to this has been the appointment of Harper Van Steenhouse to head up the Glasgow Lighthouse Lab as Phil Jones went back to his main day job.

We're also at the point now where there's been a significant capital expenditure in automation, which is coming on stream across all the Lighthouse labs. We've taken that decision not to use the same automation equipment across the entire network because if we are all using same automation equipment, we're all using the same consumables.  If there is any issue with the equipment or consumable supply, it doesn’t affect everyone.

The Lighthouse Labs network (sites in Glasgow, Liverpool, Milton Keynes and Alderley Park, Manchester) has been established in such a short time. How has this been managed?

I think there are three key parts to this.  There was excellent leadership from Chris Molloy, who heads up the Medicines Discovery Catapult at Alderley Park. He was put in charge of the Lighthouse network for the first three months and only recently stepped down from that. He knows his stuff and is good at getting the right people, doing the right things at the right time.  The second part is the active sponsorship of the Glasgow lab by Anna Dominiczak.  Last, but definitely not least, is the  enthusiasm and dedication of the lab based volunteers who stepped up when asked and have worked day and night to make all of this possible.  They are truly amazing!

How have you felt about participating in the Lighthouse Lab project?

I hate that what I am doing is not making a difference. At the point where we're in the exponential growth phase of an infectious disease that is basically killing people, I was very, very pleased to get involved with this because it felt like a very positive and constructive thing to be doing at that time and still does.

If you would like to learn more about David and his day job, check out the following interview.