The Crick Institute and Health Service Laboratories working together

Repurposing the Francis Crick Institute’s research lab into a fully operational testing facility in partnership with Health Service Laboratories to support testing of NHS staff for the benefit of patients. 

The Francis Crick Institute is a world-renowned biomedical discovery institute researching the biology underlying human health. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the government put out a plea for more testing capacity. With what its director, Sir Paul Nurse, described as a ‘Dunkirk spirit’, the Institute repurposed its laboratory to provide a testing facility that would support the testing of NHS frontline staff. 

Health Services Laboratories (HSL) is an independent laboratory network operating in partnership with University College London Hospitals (UCLH) and the Royal Free London NHS Trusts. Being practically neighbours, as well as operating one of the country’s largest diagnostic laboratories, HSL was pleased to lend its support to the Crick’s rapid transformation. 

Dunkirk spirit notwithstanding, and as an example of a successful academic, independent sector and NHS partnership, the teams worked tirelessly to accomplish a remarkable feat – to turn a research laboratory into a diagnostic testing facility able to test at scale. 

In a matter of just a few weeks, both teams achieved what would normally take months – developing a sensitive and specific COVID-19 PCR assay, and processing and scaling up the testing operation in line with regional needs. 

HSL’s extensive experience and expertise was key to setting up the Crick’s pre-analytic operation. 

The IT team’s first challenge was to build an information management system so that the Crick could receive samples and deliver results electronically. As HSL already has a proven system in place for this, it was decided to use and extend HSL’s existing systems and facilities. Consequently, HSL’s laboratory infrastructure based at Whitfield Street now receives and registers all samples prior to them being sent to the Crick for analysis.

Integrating both organisations’ systems was another priority. The team had to build a new interface to link test request  data to the Crick analytical processing systems, while ensuring the safety and continuity of samples between sites. The team extended the existing HSL electronic sample tracker system to Crick users, which then supported traceability of samples as they moved across the region from patient to laboratory. 

They also worked with the Crick teams to integrate the analytical platforms to allow the Crick’s results to be transferred digitally to HSL’s systems before being authorised and released swiftly to the treating clinician, patient and Public Health England. All achieved in just a few weeks, the new IT system is now a cornerstone of the Crick’s testing operation. 

Ensuring correct governance and oversight was critical.

At the same time as working on the required IT configurations, the HSL and Crick molecular scientific teams set about developing an accurate and robust polymerase chain reaction (PCR) pipeline. Using well-characterised case control material, and compared to HSL’s established COVID-19 assay, they set up and validated an extraction and PCR workflow, repurposing the research infrastructure and equipment that would normally have been used for discovery science.

The testing method used at the Crick uses open platform technology, enabling flexibility and allowing for controlled variation in sample input where necessary, which helps guard against global shortages of swab types, reagents and equipment.

Ensuring correct governance and oversight was critical. HSL was able to mobilise laboratory team members with both quality and accreditation experience, supported by those with UK Accreditation Service assessment experience, to support the setup of a quality framework. This framework now underpins the Crick’s diagnostic testing facility.

This remarkable achievement is testament to the hard work, dedication and open collaborative approach of all staff involved.

The HSL laboratory and quality teams worked in close partnership with Crick research scientists and the HSL virology team, led by Dr Gee Yen Shin, the HSL Consultant Specialty Lead for Virology, to ensure the testing pipeline is both accurate and reliable, and has the correct level of clinical governance and oversight. 

Now sitting alongside HSL’s own accredited pathology services, the Crick’s COVID-19 testing facility continues to support the provision of COVID-19 diagnostics for regional healthcare workers and patients. 

Dr Rachael Liebmann, Vice President of Communications at the Royal College of Pathologists and Group Medical Director at HSL, said, ‘I’m delighted HSL was able to support the Francis Crick Institute in the repurposing of their laboratory. To produce a fully operational testing facility in a matter of weeks is nothing short of extraordinary. This remarkable achievement is testament to the hard work, dedication and open collaborative approach of all staff involved.’ 

As we approach the winter, early signs are that COVID-19 will enter its next phase and cases will increase.

Dr Sam Barrell, the Crick’s Chief Operating Officer, commented, ‘We are delighted that we have been able to work so successfully in partnership with HSL to establish our testing facility. From a standing start we are now processing close to 2,000 tests a day, providing critical support to the regional health infrastructure. HSL have been exemplary partners in this endeavour.’

Dr Paul Grant, HSL’s Molecular Virology Scientific Lead, said, ‘It was an extraordinary challenge, but fantastic to work with the scientists at the Crick in transforming their labs into a bespoke COVID-19 testing facility, and help them to get their assay validated and running in record time.’ 

As we approach the winter, early signs are that COVID-19 will enter its next phase and cases will increase. Testing remains at the heart of the government’s strategy to manage the impact of the virus within the population, and to support the network of NHS hospitals, community and care settings that are so critical to the national health and social care infrastructure. 

HSL and the Crick’s successful venture is testament to how collaborative working can, and must, be part of the solution and is helping with the staff testing that is essential for supporting seamless patient care.