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Graduating Seniors Help Identify Scientific Solutions in Coronavirus Fight

Graduating Seniors Help Identify Scientific Solutions in Coronavirus Fight

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 began to appear in the U.S., graduating seniors at the University of Texas at Austin looked for ways to apply their now considerable scientific expertise toward slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the midst of their own academic careers and personal lives being turned upside down by a pandemic, their work yielded potential solutions to the shortage of coronavirus tests and medical-grade facemasks.

Graduating seniors in Natural Sciences at UT Austin developed possible solutions to shortages of COVID-19 tests and face masks.

Switching Gears

In early February, Timothy Riedel reached out to see if the undergraduate members of his lab were up for scrapping their curriculum plans and switching to start work on a test for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Riedel leads DIY Diagnostics, part of the university's Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), and is one of the leading faculty members in the Inventors Program. The two programs give undergraduates the chance to do hands-on research with cutting-edge equipment and tackle problems with societal relevance.

Riedel's 50-member lab's response was a near uniform yes.

Nicholas Tran and Simren Lakhotia, students who began in FRI as first year students and were now mere months from graduating, both had extensive experience working with the technology needed for the research. Tran designed probes for water quality testing and Lakhotia engineered ones that test for infectious illnesses in ticks.

Within two days of Riedel's first message, the two had designed the first prototype of a probe that glows when it detects a positive result. The underlying probe technology was originally developed by UT Austin research scientist Sanchita Bhadra. This quick turnaround set the lab in motion. Riedel organized the other lab members into groups to condense the process into a handful of weeks.

"Everybody was great about adapting and getting on board to the change. They understood the importance and put their current work on hold to really push this out," Lakhotia said.

Testing progress stalled when the university closed and undergraduates were unable to return from spring break to the campus lab. Nonetheless, the research continued, as Riedel sent samples to Bhadra in the lab of Andy Ellington, a professor of molecular biosciences, for further work. She confirmed the undergraduates' early results, also cutting costs using innovations developed by undergraduate researcher Vylan Nguyen. Nguyen—who optimized a process that uses cells, rather than expensive manufacturing, to produce chemicals used in the test—said it was rewarding to see the research in action.

"I knew the technology had great potential for applications in diagnostic research," said Nguyen, a pre-med senior. "It felt rewarding to see it in good use during this difficult time for everyone."

The research is described in a paper submitted to a preprint server where other COVID-19 research is made available to the scientific community. Sharing the results to the server opens the potential for other investigators to carry the work towards a low-cost test for the novel coronavirus that doesn't require a complex piece of equipment, forward.

An experiment used to test the diagnostic system's lower detection limit. From left: three samples containing 1000, 100 and 10 copies of genetic material from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and a control sample containing only human DNA. All four samples contain a fluorescent probe. The fluorescent probe indicates a positive result by glowing green when excited by blue light, and can detect as few as 10 copies. This visible result becomes brighter as the amount of genetic material increases. Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.

"There would need to be clinical trials, but this could lead to an actual diagnostic," Riedel said. "This story may not be over."

Meanwhile, although Tran and Lakhotia made sacrifices, they agreed that overall, it was worth it.

"Even though I can't walk the stage or live out my final senior semester, I know that I was at least able to do meaningful work at the university," Tran said.

Lakhotia left her long-term project, a diagnostic for a tick-borne illness, that was almost publication-ready to work on the diagnostic. She said the transition was exciting but stressful because of this sacrifice.

"It was a lot of emotions. It was exciting to be a part of something that felt so relevant. But it was stressful because I was really pushing to get my Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever work, the defining project of my undergraduate career, completed and published. I tried to make the time for both, but I just didn't have it," Lakhotia said.

DIY Decontamination

Pre-med senior Jose Torres wanted to find a way to protect his family members who work in high-traffic medical and retail industries. So he created a device that uses ozone gas to decontaminate items such as clothing, packages and cloth facemasks. The device works by trapping ozone, a dangerous but powerful disinfectant, in a sealed container where the gas concentrates and destroys viral material.

Torres, who is a mentor with the FRI Maker Space Inventors Stream and also works in the Ellington Lab, assembled the device out of a commercially available ozone generator and a plastic storage container. Using only basic hand tools, he placed the generator inside the container, fed the cable through a small hole, sealed the entry with duct tape and lined the edge that accepts the lid with strips of foam tape. Altogether, the device costs less than $100 to construct.

Pre-med senior Jose Torres built an affordable device for decontaminating face masks and clothes. Photo courtesy of Jose Torres.

This assembly creates an airtight space that can be accessed, activated and resealed, making it safe and reusable. A user would place items in, set the generator timer for an hour, and seal the container. Left outside, the generator converts all of the oxygen in the container into ozone, an unstable gas that works like bleach to oxidize and degrade organic molecules.

"Ozone can be toxic to people in high concentrations," Torres said. "That's why the device is kept solely outside, it's never brought inside, and it's kept away from people and pets and plants."

Viruses and bacteria— made up of organic molecules like DNA, RNA and proteins which are essential for the pathogens to function—get destroyed.

"If the protein key on the outside of the capsule is destroyed, it is no longer able to enter the cells which functionally disables the virus," Torres said.

Ozone also decays on its own, converting naturally back into breathable oxygen after up to 24 hours. This natural removal means the device does not need added ventilation systems required for other disinfectants.

With his new device, Torres said his family members decontaminate their clothing and masks after work to avoid possibly bringing the coronavirus into their home.

"They're able to put their clothes into the ozone machine and leave it there running," said Torres. "Any viral exposure they may have had at work is neutralized before they bring it into the house."

They also use the device for packages, mail and grocery bags since the virus can linger and remain infectious for up to a day on cardboard, and two to three days on plastic.

Like other seniors facing a postponed ceremony and disappointment over needing to spend the last semester as a student without access to regular laboratory equipment, Torres said he is making the most of the hand fate dealt him: "The development of this device gives me the peace of mind knowing that I'm doing the most that I can in all aspects, not only staying home, but also possibly creating something that other people can use."

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Wednesday, 27 May 2020

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