The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Researchers from UMass and UCLA Developing New Collection System Designed to Overcome Bottleneck for COVID-19 Testing

Jonathan Rothstein

Jonathan Rothstein

Professor Jonathan Rothstein of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department is part of a multi-institutional research team that is developing a new collection system for COVID-19 testing that the researchers said “can overcome the bottleneck that currently hampered the testing for COVID-19 around the world.” The team, led by researchers at UCLA, has received $150,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID). Rothstein explained that the essential principle of the new test is that it is “like a breathalyzer for COVID-19 people.”

As the research team said, “Our goal in this research is to develop cheap, massively deployable, rapid diagnostic and sentinel systems for detecting respiratory illness and airborne viral threats.”

RAPID is an NSF program used for proposals having a severe urgency with regard to availability of or access to data, facilities, or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events. See Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) Guidelines.

As Rothstein said about this new “breathalyzer” approach to coronavirus testing: “We are using continuous dropwise condensation to collect samples from exhaled breath without the need for invasive nasal swabs. This NSF grant is the first step. We are now working on going after NIH funds with the hopes of commercializing our technology and rolling it out in the fall. We are really excited about this work and the technology we developed. We believe it can make a big impact on the fight against COVID-19.”

As the UMass and UCLA team explained about its approach to COVID-19, “Because the virus is transmitted through aerosolized droplets in exhaled breath, through our rapid condensation process we expect to collect enough sample from one minute of breathing to enable testing through existing protocols like PCR.”

PCR, or Polymerase Chain Reaction, allows identification of pathogenic organisms that are difficult to culture by detecting their DNA or RNA.

“In addition,” said the researchers, “we are exploring an innovative detection technique that can be used to further accelerate the testing process, such that results would be given at the time of testing.”

As the researchers from UMass and UCLA noted, infectious diseases, new and re-emergent, can have a devastating impact on whole societies and political systems by collapsing local economies, halting trade, weakening national security, and overwhelming healthcare capacity, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated quite tragically around the world.

“To combat infectious pandemics, there is general agreement that rapid, effective diagnostic testing combined with contact tracing and quarantine can help officials manage infections while minimizing the effect of the disease on the economy, on society, and on our healthcare system,” the research team explained.

Furthermore, according to the UMass and UCLA researchers, effective sentinel monitoring of local environments can detect the presence of dangerous levels of virus, preventing mass spreading events. “Unfortunately,” the researchers added, “the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in our healthcare security infrastructure: There is a substantial deficiency in our ability to conduct rapid, simple, point-of-care diagnostic and environmental sample collection and testing.”

In response, as the research team said, “Our technology is based on continuous dropwise condensation (CDC) which is capable of efficiently extracting particulate (viral) loads from humidified air and exhaled breath within a short period of time.”

The first objective of this NSF project, as the team explained, is to optimize its CDC method through detailed fluid dynamics and heat and mass transfer experiments and simulations to maximize the volume of exhaled air condensate and particulate load extracted from a “simulated” patient within a clinically reasonable testing period. 

In addition, the team members said, the second objective is to fully design, fabricate, and characterize a simple, inexpensive patient interface which utilizes the team’s new CDC collector. 

“The resulting device will be easily mass-produced, non-invasive, prevent cross-contamination, and provide a means to permit standard swab use for rtPCR testing,” said the researchers. “Additionally, due to the open surface collection design of the CDC collector, the initial design of our system can be modified readily into either a point-of-care, rapid diagnostic test, or into an environmental sentinel sampling/testing system.”

The researchers concluded that “To our knowledge, the efficiency of our CDC is unmatched by any technology in existing exhaled breath condensate systems.”
Successful completion of these two objectives should put the team in position to begin patient testing of the first-generation device comprising an integrated patient interface/CDC collector capable of collecting Enhanced Brand Content samples for comparison to the current gold standard nasal swab.

As the UMass and UCLA researchers said, “We expect that the CDC technology is capable of extracting, condensing, and coalescing enough liquid from a patient’s respiratory system to perform viral testing in a minute or two, potentially making virus testing from exhalate practical in the field for the first time. Additionally, our proposed device is handheld, while the current state of the art EBC system is the size of a small room.” (May 2020)