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Notre Dame professors discuss their research to tackle COVID-19, types of virus tests

| Monday, September 7, 2020

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of Notre Dame professors have been conducting research to help combat the coronavirus.

Merlin Bruening, a professor of engineering, has been researching COVID-19 proteins and antibodies since May.

Current antibody tests determine whether or not an individual has a COVID-19 antibody; however, they do not give information as to the number of antibodies an individual may have. Bruenig’s research aims to develop a test which will quantify antibody levels.

“We’re trying to create filters that specifically capture antibodies to COVID-19 proteins and then develop methods to quantify those captured antibodies,” Bruening said. 

While this research project has been going on for years to quantify antibodies in cancer treatment, Bruening said he only started focusing this project to COVID-19 in May. He said the project is like “picking a needle out of a haystack.”

“We were trying to detect therapeutic antibodies and then determine their concentration for patients being treated with a therapeutic antibody,” Bruening said. “We wanted to determine the concentration and blood to see if the dosage is right. And so when COVID-19 came around, we started in May to pivot [this project] and look at the COVID-19 antibodies.”

By quantifying the number of antibodies an individual has, researchers can determine whether those levels decline over time, which would indicate fading immunity. Antibodies levels are also important in quantifying immune response which is important in developing vaccines, he said.

For Bruening, the next step is commercializing the technologies his lab created. 

“Once we get something, we’re trying to get companies interested in commercializing it because to take it to the next practical level we really don’t have the ability to do that,” he said. “You have to collaborate with people that can make things in large quantities and sell them and or distribute them.” 

Bruening is also working with assistant professor of biomedical engineering Jacqueline Linnes at Purdue University, to move his research forward.

“We make the filters, but [Linnes] is working on putting the filter in a small device so that you can inexpensively do things very rapidly,” Bruening said.  

During the lockdown in May, Bruening’s lab remained open to continue research.

“I think we’ve learned with appropriate precautions, the labs are some of the safest places around,” Bruening said. “We are waiting to see if we can make sure that undergraduate students can be incorporated safely. ”

Hsueh-Chia Chang, professor of engineering, said COVID-19 tests, like the antigen and the PCR test, all have different limits of detection. Through his research, Chang is looking to improve the sensitivity of COVID-19 tests. His lab had previously developed technology for isolating cellular material that is the same size as the coronavirus.

Ceming Wang, a postdoctoral fellow in Chang’s lab, joined the COVID-19 research team in March. 

“I proposed to Dr. Chang that we should probably try this technology for COVID-19,” Wang said. 

Chang said the technology is able to concentrate the virus in nasal swab samples more rapidly, extracting the virus at a higher yield. He said the test is more sensitive by a factor of 100.

Students in his lab are currently testing the technology with lentivirus, a genus of viruses that include HIV. The ultimate goal, however, is to test on real COVID-19 samples in collaboration with the screening tests.

“We hope to be able to improve the sensitivity of what Notre Dame is doing, and once this [testing] is validated in Notre Dame, we hope to do this nationally and even internationally,” Chang said. “We have now organized a team of five undergraduates, and they’ll be doing a lot of pool sample testing where they pull samples together and see if you can take up the virus in one of the samples.”

In addition to improving the sensitivity, Chang’s team is working to make the detection process even faster.

“The PCR test now is pretty slow, it takes sometimes a few days before you get the result. We want to make the test much faster, and people can get their results within half an hour without losing sensitivity,” Chang said.

Chang’s team is also currently exploring the possibility of screening facial masks to determine whether students are carrying COVID-19 on their masks.

“We will be testing masks, [that are] worn by students, and then we will try to detect viruses in the mask,” Chang said. 

Chang said he has been pleased to see that many Notre Dame professors are working together to do research to combat COVID-19.

“Two of my colleagues figured out that the face shields don’t do much indoors, and we had to wear masks. So they were able to convince provost Miranda [that wearing face shields] is not sufficient,” Chang said.

As a result of the pandemic, many scientists are seeing immediate effects of their research. 

“All of a sudden everything we do becomes relevant,” Chang said, “Before [research results were] always a long-range goal but now everything is immediate. We see what we can do and how we can contribute right away.”

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