UCI Faculty & Researchers Tackle COVID-19 from all Angles

Faculty Spotlight Rising Tide Rising Tide - Jul '20
July 21, 2020 By Ethan Perez

Anteaters assemble to find answers and develop solutions to the global pandemic, from personal protective equipment and ventilators to test kits and vaccines.

UC Irvine (UCI) is one of the nation’s premier research universities, so when it became clear that COVID-19 was becoming a global threat, its faculty and researchers took action without skipping a beat.

Much work is needed in the fight against the coronavirus, from diagnostics and ventilators to personal protective equipment and vaccines, and UCI’s brightest will stop at nothing to make Southern California and the world a safer place. Below are a few of the projects developed by the hardworking men and women who make UCI proud.

COVID-19 Coronavirus Antigen Microarray Aims to Speed Up Testing
Director of the Vaccine R&D Center Phil Felgner, and his Protein Microarray Laboratory team at UCI’s School of Medicine’s Institute for Immunology, developed a microarray test to determine if a person has been exposed to COVID-19. With a simple finger stick blood test, results are available in 10 minutes. Felgner, along with clinical research faculty members Dr. Saahir Khan and Dr. Sebastian Schubl, will conduct a six-month study involving UCI healthcare workers to understand the COVID-19 immune response. Chancellor’s Professor of Mechanical Engineering Marc Madou is also collaborating on this effort to integrate the microarrays onto compact disc-based fluidic platforms, which can speed up the process.

Genome-Wide Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine in Development
Professor of Cellular and Molecular Immunology Lbachir BenMohamed has submitted a grant proposal to develop a safe and efficient Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine. The vaccine would ideally stop and reduce the present SARS-CoV-2 infection and transmissions as well as reduce the severity of COVID-19 disease. In addition, this “preemptive” Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine is designed to stop or modify any upcoming future Coronavirus outbreaks that may be caused by yet another transmission of SARS-like Coronaviruses (SL-CoVs) from bats to humans.

Campus Labs Produce Fluid Required for COVID-19 Test Kits
Test kits for COVID-19 require a liquid called viral transport medium (VTM) that preserves samples so that they can be analyzed in a lab. When the UCI Medical Center asked the UCI campus for assistance in procuring more VTM, many labs across campus stepped up. The Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center created a task force and began production in Gross Hall.

Student worker Myia Dickens works on laser cutting plastic parts for face shields in the Cove Prototyping Lab.

Face Shields Designed and Assembled for UCI Medical Center
Collaborators from the medical center, the business community, UCI Beall Applied Innovation, UCI School of Medicine, the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and the Claire Trevor School of the Arts worked together to quickly design, test, evaluate, assemble and deliver thousands of face shields. Design leads Jesse Jackson and Ben Dolan utilized advanced manufacturing facilities on campus to produce the parts in record time.

Bridge Ventilator Consortium Connects Industry Experts
The Bridge Ventilator Consortium (BVC) is a group of physicians, engineers and biomedical device experts from across the country that collaborate virtually to design and build low-cost ventilators. Dr. Brian Wong of the School of Medicine, the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic (BLIMC) is spearheading the consortium with Dr. Govind Rajan, the director of clinical affairs at the UC Irvine Medical Center, and Thomas Milner, director of the BLIMC. The BVC is collaborating with a number of institutions and organizations, including Virgin Orbit, the University of Texas at Austin, UCI faculty and the University of Southern California. The BVC has now moved beyond ventilator devices and is focused on other projects involving noninvasive ventilation, microwave inactivation, light-based therapies and other technology-based solutions to address COVID-related problems.

Ventilators Created from Repurposed Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Machines
Dr. Matt Brenner, professor of medicine, pulmonologist and interim director of the BLIMC proposed the idea of repurposing CPAP machines to be used as ventilators for COVID-19 patients. Elliot Botvinick and Bernard Choi, professors of Biomedical Engineering and Surgery and core faculty members of the BLIMC, have led the effort to create ventilators based on the machines, commonly used by those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.

Team Designs Low-Cost Mechanical Ventilator
With the guidance of medical doctors, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Haithem Taha and his doctoral student Moatasem Fouda have developed a low-cost medical ventilator. In particular, they developed a novel respiratory regulation unit (RRU), which forms the heart of a mechanical ventilator. The RRU operates without the use of electronics and provides greater control compared to the simple, low-cost ventilators recently developed for the COVID-19 crisis.

Team Develops Windshield Wiper Motor-Inspired Ventilator Design
Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Elliot Hui, along with graduate students Vincent Zaballa and Erik Werner, have developed a low-cost ventilator prototype that utilizes a windshield wiper motor based on a design pioneered by Thomas Milner’s lab at the University of Texas at Austin. The adjustable motor speed allows the ventilator to be adapted to each patient’s specific needs. Parts for this ventilator are being 3D-printed by Luis Ramirez, an undergraduate in Hui’s group, from home.

New Pneumatic Ventilator Design Developed
Marc Madou and his bioMEMS team have developed a ventilator that uses a pressurized chamber. The ventilator – created using low-cost electronics – sends compressed air into and out of a patient’s lungs through inhalation and exhalation valves.

Task Force Created to Plan Students Eventual Return to Schools
Dr. Dan Cooper, professor of pediatrics and founding director of the Institute for Clinical Translational Science, is working with a team of educators, policymakers, scientists, clinicians, students and parents to determine how, when and under what conditions public schools should reopen. The task force is called Pediatric Research Organized and Targeted to Eliminate the COVID-19 Threat (PROTECT).

UCI Researchers Team Up to Develop COVID-19 Self-Screening Test
A team of UCI researchers is developing a self-screening test that uses a patient’s saliva to deliver rapid results. The test strips would match with a HIPAA-compliant smartphone app to instruct anonymized patients on next steps as well provide researchers with a heat map of infection zones. Collaborators include Elliot Botvinick; Michelle Khine, professor of biomedical engineering; Chancellor’s Professor Plamen Atanassov; Sean Young, associate professor of emergency medicine and informatics; and Dr. Shahram Lotfipour, professor of emergency medicine and public health.

Professor Explores Inexpensive Point-of-Care COVID-19 Immunity Test
Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering Peter Burke is investigating a less expensive way to detect antibodies by using short DNA sequences. If successful, easy-to-produce at-home tests could allow patients to determine if they have antibodies to COVID-19, which may in the future indicate immunity. It will be as easy as an at-home pregnancy test.

New System Aims to Understand Virus Mutation
Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry, and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Chang Liu and his lab are using an accelerated protein evolution system they developed to mimic how natural immune systems develop antibodies, but at a faster pace. This rapid evolution system allows Liu and team to better understand SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses and to develop ways to detect and neutralize the virus.

Study Reveals Virus Transmission Risks
Professor and Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering Sunny Jiang, and team, conducted a quantitative microbial risk assessment to investigate the risks of SARS-CoV-2 exposure through contaminated aerosols in bathrooms.

Professor Awarded to Study Diagnostics & Therapeutics for Virus
Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences John Chaput received a COVID-19 Research award from UCI to develop therapeutic aptamers – or single-stranded DNA or RNA molecules – to treat COVID-19 patients. These reagents represent a new drug class that would prevent the virus from negatively interacting with lung cells.

Award Funds Research on Cell-free, Cellular COVID-19 Vaccine
Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Young Jik Kwon received COVID-19 Research awards from UCI to create a novel extracellular vesicle-based vaccine that effectively and comprehensively boost the immune systems against SARS-CoV-2.

Professor Develops Molecules that can Prevent Virus Spread
Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Chemistry, and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Andrej Luptak received COVID-19 Research awards from UCI to develop molecules that can block the virus from spreading within the lung tissue of a patient, in addition to a diagnostic tool that would detect the virus in patient samples in minutes.

Innovative solutions to understand and combat COVID-19 are still in high demand. Find out more information about UCI Beall Applied Innovation’s call-to-action and resources during COVID-19 and how to get involved.

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Photos: Ryan Mahar & Steve Zylius

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