Emma Hodcroft wins 2022 Johanna Dürmüller-Bol DBMR Research Award

Emma Hodcroft

11.07.2022 – Dr Emma Hodcroft of ISPM and the Multidisciplinary Center for Infectious Diseases (MCID) at the University of Bern is the recipient of the 2022 Johanna Dürmüller-Bol DBMR Research Award for her project on investigating the impact of pandemic restrictions on the spread of the respiratory virus, Enterovirus D68. The yearly award, which provides 30,000CHF in research funds toward the winning project proposal, supports young researchers in applying for competitive grants and is sponsored by the Foundation Johanna Dürmüller-Bol and the Department for BioMedical Research (DBMR).

At the 2022 DMBR Day of BioMedical Research at the Kinderklinik in Bern on Wednesday 6 July, Dr. Emma Hodcroft of the ISPM and the Multidisciplinary Center for Infectious Diseases (MCID) was announced as the 2022 Johanna Dürmüller-Bol DBMR Research Award recipient. Along with two other finalists, Hodcroft prepared a 3 minute presentation on her proposed research project. Hodcroft’s proposal was entitled “Investigating the impact of pandemic restrictions on circulation and genetic diversity of a respiratory virus,” and focuses on Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68), an endemic virus that is primarily diagnosed in children.

Though EV-D68 primarily causes mild respiratory symptoms, in a small number of cases it has been associated with Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM), which causes partial or total paralysis. In recent years, EV-D68 has had a biennial autumn outbreak pattern in Europe and North America, with prior outbreaks occurring in 2014, 2016, and 2018. EV-D68 was predicted to have another outbreak in the autumn of 2020, but SARS-CoV-2 pandemic restrictions led to a dramatic decrease in the circulation of all respiratory viruses, including EV-D68. Hodcroft’s proposal is to investigate the clinical and phylogenetic impact that this significant change in circulation patterns may have both on the virus, and those it infects. “Because of effective COVID-19 restrictions, many children will not have been exposed or infected with EV-D68 when they might normally have been,” explains Hodcroft. “Thus, there’s concern about an ‘immunity gap’ where children may not have the level of immunity to EV-D68 as they would have had by the same age, pre-pandemic.” This could lead to a larger outbreak, or to an older age of initial infection, which may impact the severity of symptoms. Similarly, the EV-D68 itself may have undergone unique pressures during the time it didn’t circulate as normal, leading to new mutations, and potentially impacting how it circulates geographically. Hodcroft aims to investigate all three of these topics during her project by collecting over 300 sequences with clinical data from EV-D68 infected children and adults in Switzerland. The pandemic has created a exceptional chance to capture the reemergence dynamics of EV-D68, says Hodcroft. “We’ve never before had the chance to study the impact that such a significant change in circulation may have on respiratory viruses, so this is a really unique opportunity. I’m incredibly grateful to have received this award, which will allow me to contribute to our overall understanding of how viruses evolve and persist.”

Dr. Hodcroft joined ISPM as a postdoctoral researcher in November 2020 to work on a project funded by the Special Call on Coronaviruses from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). Together with colleagues from the Interfaculty Platform for Data and Computational Science (INPUT) led by PD Dr. Christian Althaus, she aims to integrate genomic epidemiology and epidemiological modeling to provide comprehensive inferences and projections for the COVID-19 epidemic.

The Department for BioMedical Research (DMBR) is part of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Bern, and focuses on clinical research with a strong emphasis on developing translational approaches and utilizing cutting-edge technologies while supporting extensive collaboration and interaction between patient-based and laboratory-based research. The Johanna Dürmüller-Bol DBMR Research Award support young researchers early in their career by funding a project which can be used as a base for a successful competitive grant application. The award is supported by the DBMR and the Foundation Johanna Dürmüller-Bol, and awards winners 30,000CHF in research funds.