COVID-19: Research Update
In all my time as vice president for research at Michigan Tech, some of the most rewarding experiences have been working with teams — watching them form, understand a problem, develop a solution and execute the work. That has been especially true recently, as different parts of campus have developed innovative ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis we are all facing.
A team led by Andrew Barnard (GLRC) and Jeffrey Allen (ME-EM), funded by the College of Engineering, and involving people from GLRC; MEEM; MMET; ECE; a local contractor, Aire Care; and a Wisconsin company, Therma-Tron-X, developed the Mobile Thermal Utility (MTU) Sanitizer. The unit — compiled from parts on hand in commercial bakeries, restaurants, HVAC shops, shipping yards and universities — can clean 5,000 to 10,000 PPE units every two hours and can run continuously. A Detroit area medical provider is testing the device at the National Guard site in Taylor, Mich. The sanitizer was transported there by Michigan National Guard members from Calumet. The governor’s office was essential in coordination of the entire effort. And all this happened in just over a week.
Caryn Heldt (ChE), in partnership with collaborators at Johns Hopkins University and Mount Sinai Hospital, is creating new processes to improve the purification step of vaccine manufacturing — which often accounts for 50% to 70% of production costs.
Joshua Pearce (MSE), who runs the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab, has joined the Michigan Tech Open Source Initiative in responding to a call by the journal HardwareX to prototype 3D-printed, open-source ventilators and other medical hardware, which will be tested and routed to hospitals to overcome COVID-19.
With delays in COVID-19 testing across the nation, rural and remote regions like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have been hard pressed to get enough tests for patients. A call with elected officials on March 25 led to an effort to create, basically from scratch, a certified laboratory for human diagnostic testing for COVID-19. Heldt and David Dixon (VPR) served as technical leads, working with a team of more than 20 people from BIO, BME, CFRES, CHE, MLS and a number of administrative units on March 26 to begin determining if we had the capacity to do this. In short order, with additional leadership from faculty members Steve Techtmann, Kristin Brzeski, Ebenezer Tumban, Carsten Kuelheim, Karyn Fay, Brigitte Morin and Claire Danielson, laboratory equipment was moved, sampling protocols were developed, sample material to develop processes were shared by another institution, and known samples from the state of Michigan were obtained.
In parallel, a HIPAA-compliant patient record system and methods for receiving, recording, analyzing, and reporting the results of human diagnostic tests were assembled, tested, and made operational. Laboratory Operations led the regulatory approval process, and FSO will be handling the medical billing operation. Purchasing, HR, Facilities and many other units were all essential for this to come together.
In partnership with Dr. Cary Gottlieb, a pathologist from OSF St. Francis Hospital in Escanaba who will serve as laboratory director, and other regional hospitals, the MTU team has coordinated receiving and testing samples. This week, just two weeks after the initial meeting, they will start testing patient samples from Aspirus-Keweenaw, Baraga County and UPHS-Portage hospitals for COVID-19, and are scaling up to serve an even broader geographic area. The lab has the capacity to run 40 samples per hour on two machines, and the team has plans to expand with more equipment and staffing.
In the coming weeks, we’ll hear about additional COVID-19-related research efforts on campus. This research includes:
- Examination of supply chains during pandemics and how building greater resiliency into those systems is one of the great lessons learned from this crisis
- Detecting coronaviruses in human waste to equip municipal wastewater managers and other decision makers with important information for treatment processes
- Developing thermostable vaccines that can be altered to fight against a number of diseases, viruses and even cancer
- And how a capstone Senior Design team pivoted from disappointment at study abroad trips being cut short to developing an electromechanical design for a device that automatically actuates a bag-valve-mask (BVM) to serve as a ventilator substitute.
More information about this research can be found at mtu.edu/news.
At the same time these and a number of other efforts were underway across campus, many research activities, particularly experimental work, were disrupted. Thank you to all the researchers on campus for adjusting your routines, protecting your samples and equipment, and working remotely as best as you are able.
Even though people cannot work in their labs or collect field data, the work of proposal development, literature review, data analysis, technical reporting and other activities continues. Proposals are still being submitted and funding received, essentially uninterrupted by the situation around us. When we are eventually able to reactivate our labs and return to our experiments, I think we will all be exceptionally proud of the many ways the Michigan Tech research community used our collective creativity and research capabilities to contribute solutions to what may become one of the landmark events of our lifetimes.