Arizona’s bioscience and health communities jump in to eradicate coronavirus

Arizona’s bioscience and health communities are rushing alongside their counterparts across the globe to find ways to hold off and eradicate the new coronavirus. 

From a new test that can detect the virus within 15 minutes to high tech robots that can sterilize hospital rooms, their work is contributing to a world stepping up to stop it from spreading.  

As of Wednesday, the virus had killed more than 2,006 people in China and three in other countries, according to the World Health Organization. Globally, more than 75,000 people have been confirmed to be infected. The vast majority are in China. So far, only seven cases have been reported in the U.S., including one in Arizona. 

Pharmaceutical firms and researchers in the U.S., China and other countries are pushing to find ways to prevent more devastation from the outbreak. 

In Arizona, researchers and health facilities are jumping in: 

TGen working with FDA to approve test to diagnose virus  

Flagstaff researchers at TGen believe they can develop a quick, accurate, genomics-based test that could produce results in as little as 15 minutes, and is easily used in a doctor’s office or hospital emergency room.

Development of such tests can take months; even years. TGen scientists are waiting on an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so they can move their discoveries more quickly from the lab to doctors and their patients.

They are developing a test that not only can detect if a patient has a coronavirus, but also tell which type of coronavirus, which can be as mild as a common cold or the more deadly types like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the new virus, which was officially named COVID-19 this month. 

Currently, the only other test available is being developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It received an emergency use authorization from the FDA Feb. 4 to allow more health labs to test samples. 

One test is not enough, said David Engelthaler, co-director and associate professor of TGen North in Flagstaff, who took to the airwaves last week to talk about the virus. TGen North is the infectious-disease division for the Phoenix-based non-profit Translational Genomics Research Institute that uses genomic sequencing to identify and develop therapies for diseases like cancer. 

“If the disease starts to spread and we do see large outbreaks in the U.S. like they’re seeing in China, it will be important to have a lot more than just that single test so we want to make sure that we’re ready to be able to respond and make a great as impact as possible,” Engelthaler said.  

TGen’s test involves collecting a sample of DNA from a sick patient, such as mucous from the nose, and using sequencing technology to determine if it is COVID-19.

“We’re going to be able to develop a similar type of rapid test but we can look throughout the entirety of the genetic material to not only say absolutely it’s this exact strain and whether it’s changing,” Engelthaler told KTAR News. “It will give information for both doctors and public health officials who are tracking this outbreak.”

ASU researchers developing vaccine 

In a similar race, three Arizona State University researchers are working to find a vaccine for COVID-19. 

In her lab at the Biodesign Institute at ASU, Professor Brenda Hogue, a virologist in the School of Life Sciences, specializes in the study of various coronaviruses and understanding virus-host interactions at the cellular level.

Hogue and two other researchers, molecular biologist Qiang Chen and virologist Bert Jacobs, are working to create different vaccines to combat COVID-19. Their different strategies involve changing an existing vaccine and creating a new one.

In a recent Q&A interview with ASU, Hogue said that it can take years for a vaccine to be available. 

“It takes a long time and one has to start from initial experiments. Small animal models, if available, are generally used before ultimately testing in primates and then humans. In the case of the vaccine development for the new coronavirus, it will facilitate work that has already been done for SARS and MERS.” 

Hogue said they are initiating work to understand several of the proteins that are common to coronaviruses that they have already been working on. 

“We are interested in what is different about the proteins in the new virus, compared to the other coronaviruses that we work with. We want to understand how the differences impact the functions of the proteins during infection. We’re initiating this work as we speak and will certainly share results with the scientific community,” she said. 

Honor Health uses germ-zapping robots to clean patient rooms 

Hospitals across Arizona like HonorHealth also are well prepared for any outbreaks. 

HonorHealth started purchasing germ-zapping robots a few years ago with the help of generous community donors. Today, they have 32 of the robots that will come in handy if the virus spreads. They can kill 99.9 percent of germs left in a room.   

Using high-intensity ultraviolet light, the small robots disinfect a patient room in just minutes. Delivered in millisecond pulses, the light is hundreds of times more intense than sunlight. The robot successfully kills germs, including bacteria, viruses, bacterial spores, and antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

“You can imagine how hard it is to wipe down every nook and crevice in a room. Think of the telephone, cords, bed rails and other things. The advantage of the robot is that its germ-zapping light penetrates the entire area,” Stephanie Jackson, MD, HonorHealth senior vice president and chief clinical value officer said in a prepared statement.

The robots were first used in HonorHealth’s unit for patients with blood cancers at Scottsdale Shea Medical Center. This specialized unit cares for individuals who are among the sickest and most vulnerable of HonorHealth’s patients, those with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood cancers. Because of their treatment, these patients have significantly compromised immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to infections.

Many of the deaths associated with COVID-19 have been patients who were elderly or  already sick or unhealthy. 

Meanwhile, the best protection is simple, health care professionals said. Wash hands thoroughly with soap, use hand sanitizers with alcohol and avoid touching the face with unclean hands.

Victoria Harker

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