Illinois Tech Researchers Help Produce Critical Substance for COVID-19 Testing

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By Mary Owen-Thomas

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An interdisciplinary group of 15 Illinois Tech faculty, staff, and Ph.D. students are helping the state of Illinois build its COVID-19 testing capacity.

More than 10 labs at the university’s Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) at the Moffett campus in Bedford Park, Illinois, have been repurposed with the aim of producing 13,000 tubes of viral transport medium (VTM) per week. VTM is the critical solution for the COVID-19 testing that preserves sample swabs until testing.

In early April researchers from the Department of Food Science and Nutrition, Department of Biology, and IFSH quickly mobilized after the university got a call from state officials asking for help. Within hours, there was a conference call and production started April 10.

“This is a unique opportunity for Illinois Tech to help meet the state’s needs,” says Alvin Lee, an Illinois Tech food science associate professor who has been overseeing the lab efforts. “The staff had no issues returning to work. I think everyone wanted to contribute, in some way, no matter how big or small, for the greater good.”

The tubes of VTM are filled with a mixture of substances to preserve the swab samples by preventing bacteria and fungus from growing, controlling pH levels, and stabilizing the virus.

Illinois Tech’s tubes of VTM are then delivered to an Illinois Department of Public Health facility in Chicago. 

Governor J. B. Pritzker announced the partnership with Illinois Tech, as well as other universities, at his April 16 news briefing. Over the last month Pritzker said it had been difficult for state labs to obtain the VTM and swabs, threatening the testing supply chain.

“Our university partners of Illinois Tech, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, as well as outside vendors, have committed collectively to providing us with enough VTM and swabs that we can not only stock our state labs, but support additional labs throughout the state. This means even more specimens being taken for testing,” Pritzker said during the news conference.

Several faculty members stepped up despite balancing their teaching and research loads, as well as other administrative responsibilities.

In addition to Lee, researchers helping with the project include: Britt Burton-Freeman, the Department of Food Science and Nutrition chair; Indika Edirisinghe, associate professor of food science and nutrition; Aman Sandhu, assistant professor of food science and nutrition; Oscar Juarez, assistant professor of biology; Viviana Loeza Aguilar, IFSH senior support scientist; Nicole Maks-Warren, IFSH scientist; Brittany Swicegood, IFSH support scientist; Karolina Piszczor, IFSH support scientist; Jodie Ulaszek, IFSH support scientist; Shannon Pickens, IFSH support scientist; Mu Ye, IFSH senior research associate; Yun Wang, IFSH biosafety officer/scientist; Karina Tuz, biology lecturer; and Jialing Xiang, interim chair of the Department of Biology. 

Two food science and nutrition Ph.D. students and an Optional Practical Training (OPT) trainee in the clinical research unit of Illinois Tech’sCenter for Nutrition Research are also assisting: Di Xiao, Xuhuiqun Zhang, and Yihong Wu, respectively.

“It’s a great demonstration of all these groups coming together quickly and ramping up the labs to help the state and our community,” says Burton-Freeman, who is also director of the Center for Nutrition Research.

The contributions of the food science and nutrition faculty and staff show their students that their skills can be applied across disciplines, Burton-Freeman said.

“On one day we work on food-related issues and on another day we apply our knowledge and skills to meet the needs of a public health crisis,” says Burton-Freeman.

UNIQUE FACILITY AND FACULTY

The Moffett campus labs that are being used were repurposed from research for food safety and clinical and molecular nutrition. Work in the areas of microbiology, biochemistry, analytical chemistry, genomic sequencing, and other areas are typically done in these spaces.

The Moffett campus contains some of the most technologically advanced food safety research labs at any university in the United States. IFSH is a collaboration among the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Illinois Tech, and the food industry to conduct scientific research to solve public health issues related to food safety and health.

“The IFSH facilities are an asset to the state of Illinois and the Chicago area,” said Robert Brackett, Illinois Tech vice president and IFSH director. “We are thrilled that we can make use of this unique facility to help with Governor Pritzker’s public health effort.”

One of the biggest challenges in this process was creating protocols that allowed for social distancing during research,  Lee says. He has been working with colleagues to create a schedule that allows for only one to two people in the lab at one time and giving them sufficient time to clean between uses.

“We can normally have about four people working on a project on any given day, but in this situation, we have to separate people out and make sure they don’t interact or minimize interaction,” Lee says. “It was definitely a little more challenging. We normally observe good disinfection, but with this, we have to go an extra step for cleaning.”

The IFSH Safety Committee developed standard operating procedures and provided training to the team in a very short timeframe on enhanced disinfection procedures and how to ensure precautions being implemented were in line with current Centers for Disease Control guidelines. As the CDC guidelines may change, researchers will have to quickly adopt and implement updates to ensure the safety of our team.

Another challenge is obtaining the chemicals and tubes to make the VTM since there is an increased demand and are often out of stock due to COVID-19 testing. 

“Because the supply is so tight, we recently ran out of tubes,” says Xiang. “I brought all the tubes from the biology department to bridge the gap to avoid production interruptions while we waited for the order of tubes to arrive.”

Xiang says she has received many requests from students asking how they can help with the VTM project. While they are unable to help due to liability, she says the pandemic is an opportunity to emphasize to students the real-world relevance of their education.

“At graduation, I’m going to tell students, ‘COVID-19 reminds us  how important biological science is,’” Xiang says. “It provides the foundation for understanding, detection, and treatment of the disease. The knowledge you have learned in the classroom will be soon applied to the real world to solve the real problems.”

Photo: Illinois Tech is producing 13,000 tubes of viral transport medium to assist with COVID-19 testing.