Clotting and Covid-19

Biochemist Dr Paulina Szklanna is a UCD graduate and a member of the UCD Conway SPHERE team whose project AI_PREMie is a finalist in Science Foundation Ireland’s AI for Societal Good Challenge. 


Before moving to Ireland from her native Poland in August, 2007, young Paulina Szklanna had never before experienced the lilting Irish brogue. “At the beginning the accent was the most difficult thing for me to grasp,” she says, after her family moved from Poland to Moate, Co. Westmeath, where her father took up work as a welder and Paulina started 5th year in Moate Community School. Happily, her flair for science proved to be a language all of its own. “I loved the sciences and I understood them very well thanks to some excellent teachers in Poland. I ‘got’ the meaning of science - the chemical equations and the systems in biology - so it was just a matter of learning the words in English. And once that clicked in my head, luckily I flew through it.”

Paulina then went on to study Science in UCD. After graduating she remained at UCD to complete her PhD, which focussed on the role of platelets in preeclampsia, having won a prestigious Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship from the Irish Research Council. Her research, performed in the UCD Conway Institute, involved obtaining pre-approved blood samples from women with the dangerous pregnancy condition and examining platelet activity to better predict severity and improve outcomes.

“Platelets circulate around in your blood and their main function is clotting but they also have the unique ability to pick up important messages from the blood. We had this idea that if you look at platelets you can see what’s important in the blood of those patients - and that may help us to identify biomarkers of disease,” she explains. “Thankfully we were able to identify some really important biomarkers that have a real chance of helping in the diagnosis of preeclampsia in the clinical setting. This will help clinicians make decisions regarding hospitalisation and delivery time of the patient. Giving them that kind of light in the darkness would be something amazing to come out of my work.”

She, her Conway SPHERE teammates Prof. Patricia Maguire and Prof. Fionnuala Ní Áinle, obstetricians from the three Dublin maternity hospitals Prof Mary Higgins (National Maternity Hospital Holles St), Dr Jennifer Donnelly (Rotunda Hospital) and Dr Neil O’Gorman (Coombe Hospital), Dr Suzy Whoriskey, UCD School of Maths and Statistics, together with partners SAS Ireland, are now finalists in Science Foundation Ireland’s AI For Societal Good Challenge and its €5m in Future Innovator prizes.

 Along with this important work, Dr. Szklanna is also now spending her weekends in Dublin’s Mater hospital lab, in full PPE, to try and understand why clotting is such a notable feature of Covid-19 cases. 

“Our clinical colleagues Dr Barry Kevane and Prof Fionnuala Ní Áinle have been seeing abnormal clotting in their patients. With our expertise in platelets, we thought, ‘Platelets could play a role’ and there may be something different about platelets in those patients.”

Dr Szklanna and the ConwaySPHERE team are analysing platelets from Covid-19 patients across the severity spectrum to try and understand how potential outcomes like this can be predicted and prevented. 

“We take the blood, we isolate their platelets and we perform a range of platelet function testing. We examine how those platelets react in response to different stimuli and what those platelets release. We’re also looking at how quickly thrombin - the main enzyme leading to clotting - is made in their blood. Hopefully that will give us more of an understanding of what is happening in the blood of those patients that may lead to clotting.”

As with her work on preeclampsia, she knows these investigations can take many hours of hard work and uncertainty. 

“When you do science you have to wait some time for the result. But once you discover something new, you are literally the first person in the whole world to know about this for a little window of time. The hope that my work will help to create new knowledge in the world is definitely something that motivates me.”