How to conduct research during a pandemic?
Very carefully, that's how. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world. In academia, classes have moved online and research has been switched to ‘critical’ mode. Stay-at-home orders across the states have kept people sheltered and decreased the spread of the virus. In some sense, my lab is fortunate to be able to contribute to the fight against the pandemic by developing a new diagnostic test.
One of the pillars of my lab is the development of portable user-friendly biosensors—devices that can detect if an infectious pathogen (bacteria or virus) is present. For the past two years, we have been working on tackling the problem of bovine respiratory disease, which affects almost one-in-five cattle and leads to severe losses. We use methods that can detect DNA (or RNA)—the building blocks of life—of the pathogen and produce a color change that can be seen by the naked eye (like a litmus test). With bovine respiratory disease, the goal has been to be able to conduct these diagnostic tests on the farm and provide an answer within an hour so that the farmer could determine whether an antibiotic should be used and which one. The vision is that the animals would get better quicker and we would reduce the excessive use of antibiotics.
Now, with COVID-19, we are using the same platform to target the virus responsible for the disease: SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). Since viruses are also made up of similar building blocks as the rest of life (RNA), we can modify our detection methods quickly. Our goal is to make these tests as simple as possible; almost as simple as a pregnancy test. Typically, such projects would take years to come to fruition, but given the urgency, we have an aggressive timeline of months.
A couple of weeks before the state-wide stay-at-home order went into effect, teaching had already moved online and most universities around the country were doing the same. At that time, we were just starting to ramp up our work on COVID-19. We had support from within the university and also from external partners to keep building It up. Since research on COVID-19 is considered critical research, with the appropriate permissions and approvals, we were allowed to continue this project. I had to reorganize my group to get 60% of the members (anybody who had an association with biosensors) to focus on this single project while the other experiments were stopped and students focused on data analysis and manuscript preparation. It was all hands on deck.
While we were allowed to work on this project, of course, we have to be extra careful with guidelines around social distancing. All eyes are on us and my students are always vigilant. I meet with my students on a daily basis to check in with them (and their health) and to get research updates (which is different compared to our usual weekly meetings). The daily updates have certainly helped move the project along quickly. We already have a detection method that can produce a color change in response to the viral RNA for SARS-CoV-2. We are now working on making the detection method more user-friendly.
My lab members have really stepped up their performance are all working together to move the project forward while also managing changes in their courses and personal lives.
We have faced challenges as well; just like most institutions, universities are not very well-suited to take action quickly. Besides the technical challenges in the lab, I have also had to handle many logistical challenges with purchasing, payroll, and facilities. I have had the support of upper-level administration which I certainly find useful. The promise of this research project has led to media coverage (e.g., by Newsy and the Indiana Business Journal). It has been a new experience for me to engage with the journalist and we are working hard to deliver on our promises. I am looking forward to the next few months where hopefully, we will be able to deliver a new better test for COVID-19. We hope that it will help us manage and recover from the pandemic.