Fighting the Pandemic
By: Jason Cannon
Several months in, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the United States and much of the world. When Texas Tech University closed campus in March 2020, several researchers shifted their work and contributed to efforts fighting the pandemic and its effects on the South Plains and beyond. While these stories do not account for what everyone has accomplished during the pandemic, this selection displays how Red Raiders respond when their community needs help.
Collaboration is Key
Al Sacco Jr., dean of the Whitacre College of Engineering, was in a unique position to assist in COVID-19 relief. Sensing a need for continuing collaboration with the medical community long before the pandemic started, Jnev Biros was brought as a research associate whose medical experience would facilitate cooperation with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
"We hired her specifically to try to integrate with the medical school," said Sacco. "Little did we know it would be in this kind of direction."
In late March, a consortium was formed from many regional stakeholders that included Sacco, Biros, and Simon Williams, associate dean for academic affairs at TTUHSC, as well as UT Permian Basin, the Junior League of Lubbock, and Angel Flights. They cast a wide net to see what community health providers needed in order to combat the pandemic.
"Most of us had to work and think out of our comfort zones, out of our predetermined expertise," said Biros. "We learned how to learn from other disciplines. And we had to do things, like run experiments in ways we haven't done before." Out of this effort, a number of faculty volunteered to use their time and expertise to help any way they could.
Ensuring Mask Effectiveness
While the CDC recommends wearing a mask, it became apparent to Texas Tech researchers that not all masks are equally effective. Karin Ardon-Dryer, an assistant professor from the Department of Geosciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, has expertise in atmospheric aerosol research. She served on a team testing mask materials, and her knowledge was a vital part of determining which masks work better than others.
"My group is working on aerosol particles, such as dust particles in dust storms," said Ardon-Dryer. "We are measuring the particles here during dust storms in Lubbock, and we also expose them to human lung cells with a technique that I developed in my postdoc at Harvard where we are looking at each individual lung cell to see the interaction of the dust particle in our lungs."
Ardon-Dryer utilized the same tools used in atmospheric measurements to determine the efficiency for each of the different masks. Particles were generated and passed into dedicated devices that counted the number of particles before and after the mask. Ardon-Dryer then compared how many particles were filtered by the mask fabric. After testing nine different types of mask material, N95s and KN95s were confirmed to be the most effective. Beyond material type, they've also determined mask fit and duration of usage which are important factors; a mask needs to fit tight and properly seal against one's face to offer the most protection. The N95 and KN95 masks tested were effective for several hours, while a fabric mask they tested became less effective the longer it was used.
Producing Testing Supplies
The need for COVID-19 testing led to a demand for crucial testing supplies, which under normal circumstances would have been easily available. When the pandemic hit, Harvinder Gill and his team went to work producing a critical ingredient to testing: viral transport media, or VTM. This VTM allows viral samples to be securely transported from patients to the lab without risk of exposing nor damaging the virus. In May, Gill was contacted by the State of Texas Supply Chain Strike Force to order 60,000 vials for the State of Texas, and since then, Gill's team has produced a total of 107,000 VTM vials, with another 30,000 scheduled for production. This important resource allows COVID-19 cases to be identified to help slow community spread.
Building Ventilator Parts
When somebody becomes hospitalized due to COVID-19 complications, necessary medical equipment needed for treatment can be out of reach for certain area clinics and hospitals. In addition, the logistics of transporting patients from rural areas to regional centers poses significant challenges. Nurcan Bac, Burak Aksak, and Richard Gale were part of a team that included Joe Dannemiller, Mark Dannemiller, Jeff Hanson, Robert Kovenburg, Derek Johnston, Roy Mullins, and numerous others who worked on developing prototypes for transfer line ventilators to help give community healthcare providers much needed relief. Ludlum Measurements of Sweetwater, Texas is working with the group on developing beta units based on two ventilator designs. They plan on having 150 units in production by the end of the year, but with the hope that they won't be needed.
Making Better Tests
What if testing for COVID-19 could be done easily at work or at home so that positive people can self-quarantine to prevent further viral spread? These were the questions posed by Gerardine Botte of the Whitacre College of Engineering and Sharilyn Almodovar from the School of Medicine at TTUHSC. Along with graduate student Ashwin Ramanujam, their journey to developing an ultra-fast sensor started with another health concern – E. coli in public water.
Their group has utilized HIV to test their concept while they await approvals to use COVID-19 samples from The Institute for Environmental and Human Health. Aided by a company named EnViroTech, LLC, the team has earned a Prototype Fund award from the Texas Tech Innovation Hub at Research Park. They're currently awaiting delivery of a prototype and are working to request an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food & Drug Administration.
The Silver Lining
One lesson that seemed to emerge from all these efforts was that crisis creates opportunity.
"What it has done is it's brought together the medical school and the engineering school in a matter of months that would have taken decades," Sacco said. "And so, in a strange way, COVID-19 has made a huge positive impact." No matter how long the pandemic lasts, it will have left an imprint on the tenacity of science and innovation.
"We accomplished something for people from different backgrounds and disciplines," said Biros. "It taught us how to function in unity, and in our case, how to do true interdisciplinary research and innovate at the same time."