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MTU puts research to work fighting viruses locally, globally

Michigan Technological University Youtube Director of MTU’s Health Research Institute Caryn Heldt, featured in a YouTube video-tour of the lab inside the Great Lakes Research Center. The tour can be viewed at bit.ly/39W0raf.

Michigan Technological University researchers pivoted to looking for ways to help fight COVID-19 early in the pandemic. They were able to quickly launch a sample testing lab, design a PPE sanitizer, launch PPE-building programs, and more within the first months. Those research programs and the testing lab have continued to develop through the summer and fall.

“We just tested this week our 21,000th sample,” said David Reed, MTU’s Vice President for Research.

Each week, the testing lab has been able to run around 1,100 to 1,300 tests on patient samples collected either from MTU students or local community health providers. They’ve just secured new equipment with the help of Portage Health Foundation that should put them over 2,000 tests per week.

Reed says that local hospitals and doctors have told MTU that local testing has made a huge difference, saving at least 24 hours in the testing process, if not more. At one point in the year, MTU’s lab was processing samples from Ironwood and Marquette, according to Reed.

The lab was originally set up in a classroom, but when students returned in the fall, had to be moved to a different set of labs in the Great Lakes Research Center.

Joshua Pearce/Michigan Technological University The portable, 3D-printed compression system developed by MTU’s MOST lab for use with the bag valve masks to create a temporary, emergency ventilator.

“And we were able to do the move without missing a single day of testing,” Reed said.

The lab is operated by professors and graduate students, because a 4-year degree is required. Most of them work there part time as they continue to attend or teach classes. Reed said their first full-time worker only started in August. At least one professor had to forego teaching classes this semester to focus on lab operation.

Reed said the lab would continue operating as long as it is needed.

“The question is, when will it not be needed?” he said.

He said they plan on testing through the Spring semester at MTU, beyond that will depend on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and effectiveness.

You can take a video tour of the lab with Director of the Health Research Institute Caryn Heldt at bit.ly/39W0raf.

Something that has helped MTU control COVID-19 on their campus and focus their individual swab testing is the monitoring of wastewater coming from each of the residence halls.

“The wastewater testing is more of an early indicator,” Reed said.

Virus levels in wastewater are very sensitive to how many people contributing to the wastewater are shedding virus.

“And the virus is detectable in wastewater, our data show, somewhere around a week before it’s detectable in a swab,” Reed said.

That extra week of notice allows individual swab testing to be focused to more accurately trace the infection and limit its spread.

The State of Michigan launched a 3-month, $10 million program to establish a wastewater testing network and protocol for municipalities, schools and other institutions that can be monitored this way.

Heldt  at the Health Research Institute has also been working on how to better deliver vaccines. She is developing a kind of preservation technique that has been nicknamed the “virus burrito”.

While the research won’t apply to the newly-designed COVID-19 vaccines, the virus burrito makes vaccines like the polio vaccine (live-virus vaccines) much more stable and easy to transport. That vaccine must be stored at negative 20 degrees Celsius. Some need to be kept as low as minus 80 according to Reed. Transporting those any distance at that temperature is difficult, and many medical facilities don’t have coolers that powerful, either.

“And so the chain of having minus 80 degree temperature from wherever it’s manufactured to wherever the last person gets a shot is going to be a very challenging piece of that vaccine delivery system,” Reed said.

In many parts of the word, he added, even regular refrigeration can be a challenge, as electricity isn’t always available, or reliable.

The virus burrito is a protein mixture that enables vaccines to be kept at room temperature. Researchers are now working on how to apply the method to other types of vaccines, like those being made for COVID-19.

The lab that usually handles vehicle emissions testing, Advanced Power Systems Research Center led by Jeff Naber, has also pitched into the science fighting COVID-19.

“…They actually adapted, built a device where you could look at the effectiveness of the filtering of different types of masks under different conditions,” Reed said.

This has allowed them to check not only the effectiveness of mask designs, but how long masks continue to be effective.

“They’ve got an artificial sneezer in this device,” Reed said.

The mobile PPE sanitizer that was developed in concert with MTU’s Great Lakes Research Center, a shipping container outfitted to heat its contents high enough to kill off viruses, was unfortunately idled for most of the summer. While it was ready, the FDA hadn’t signed off on its effectiveness, so healthcare providers were reluctant to utilize it, according to Reed.

The sanitizer will work well with PPE that can stand up to high temperatures, but much of what is being produced now isn’t designed for it. People are printing PPE with 3D printers, but they would melt or deform in the sanitizer, so are usually only single-use.

“We needed a high tech 3D printer that could actually print plastic that can handle heat,” Allison Mills, associate director of research communications, said.

Joshua Pearce and Michigan Tech’s Open Sustainability Technology Lab developed a 3-nozzled high-temperature 3D printer they named Cerberus, which can be built for less than $1,000. It prints PPE out of plastic that can be sterilized using oven-based techniques.

MOST also helped firefighters with the design and printing of parts for their standard respiration equipment, to make them safe to use without another, single-use mask. 

And to help alleviate a potential ventilator shortage, they developed a tool to automate a bag-valve mask. Bag-valve masks are the kind often used by EMTs, and have to be squeezed in time with a patient’s breath. The automator, using an Arduino controller and 3D printed parts for less than $170, squeezes the bag at adjustable intervals, turning the bag valve mask into a temporary emergency ventilator.

Reed said the real story is how the community pooled their various expertises to address new problems.

“People were able to basically take something they used in a totally different field, and pivot to address some unknown issue around the pandemic,” he said.

And those expertises complimented and built on each other.

“In all of our films, when we think about engineers, and we think about adventurers, we think about the lone person,” Mills said. “And I definitely think the last 10 months have shown all of us that this happens with groups of people who intentionally come together to improve the lives of themselves and others.”

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