“Ken and I are using commodity polymers that are very, very inexpensive, so it’s a very cost-effective test,” Bruce said. “You could test folks multiple times. It runs very similar to a pregnancy test in time, how it’s evaluated and cost. It would solve a lot of initial problems that we’re having right now.”
Marcus said the Holy Grail would be to develop a test that could be done so quickly, it could help determine who could be admitted to bars and other businesses on the spot.
“While they are carding customers to make sure they are 21, they are handed a test kit and it’s ‘yes, you get in’ or ‘no, you don’t get in,’ depending on the results,” he said. “The same would be true for your local pharmacy and grocery store.”
Blenner, the McQueen Quattlebaum Associate Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, said his group was working to create an antigen test that would use saliva and off-the-shelf reagents. Antigen tests search for the presence of viral proteins and return results in a matter of minutes, although they aren’t as sensitive as widely used PCR tests.
“We need to be doing tests that are much faster to get results on,” Blenner said. “Some recent work is suggesting that the sensitivity of those tests – or how accurate they are – is not the most important factor.
“It’s how fast you can get results and how frequently you test. In order to get frequent, fast testing, we have to develop something that doesn’t exist right now. So that’s why Terri and Ken all along have been working on a point-of-care diagnostic, and that’s a new direction Delphine and I have been heading in for a little while.”
Harcum, a professor of bioengineering, has been working with Blenner to make reagents for tests.
In his lab, Blenner puts the DNA for spike proteins inside of human or hamster cells. When the cells grow, they produce the spike proteins, which will ultimately serve as the reagent in tests. The procedure is meant to make protein quickly but not mass produce it.
And that’s where Harcum picks up the work. She puts the cells in computer-controlled bioreactors that can sense oxygen and pH levels. Pumps carefully control the nutrients that feed the cells.
“I grow cells to make them happier so they make more protein,” Harcum said. “Normally, I look at how to make pharmaceuticals, but the pharmaceuticals I make are proteins, which makes this COVID-19 work a good fit for what I do.”
Dean said that if any good has come out of the pandemic, it’s that the situation has brought researchers from across the state closer together than they have ever been.
“I hope that once this pandemic passes that we continue these kinds of collaborations so that the next time a COVID-19-type event comes along, we’ll be more prepared and tackle it more quickly,” she said. ✲