Graphic by Maia Brown

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists at Northwestern are continuing their work to better understand the disease, find possible treatment and come up with innovative technologies that support healthcare workers at this difficult time. This Research Recap features three COVID-19 related studies done by Northwestern researchers.

What physical scientists and engineers can do in this battle against COVID-19?

Around the world, healthcare workers are at the frontline working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which has now spread to about 211 countries, areas and territories, according to the World Health Organization. Now, physical scientists and engineers are also joining this battle. You may not think that physical sciences and engineering play a role in studying respiratory diseases, but Northwestern’s materials science and engineering Professor Jiaxing Huang noted that physical scientists can also do a lot to help because viruses spread in the physical space and material world before they infect people.

Professor Huang reached out to Northwestern alumni from China who are either clinicians working at the frontline or researchers in physical sciences fields who want to see what they can do to better understand COVID-19. With this international team and his students at Northwestern, Professor Huang outlined several areas where scientists and engineers can help and published the study in the journal ACS Nano titled “COVID-19: A Call for Physical Scientists and Engineers.” Their suggestions include: set up barriers to block the transmission of viruses; design special surfaces that can inactivate viruses quickly; invent safer personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers; use degradable and sustainable materials for PPE so people can handle PPE waste polluted by viruses safely; etc.

The authors of the paper pointed out that scientists and engineers can contribute to the understanding of COVID-19 and respiratory diseases in general even if they have no previous research or knowledge in this field. COVID-19 is a global challenge that requires collaborations across national and academic borders. At Northwestern, Professor Huang has encouraged students from his previous classes to actively think about what they can do with their knowledge, according to Northwestern Now.

Northwestern Medicine started COVID-19 drug trial

Northwestern Medicine joined an international drug trial to evaluate the effect of remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed to treat Ebola but also shows an antiviral effect against SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in animal models, according to Northwestern Now.

Investigators are conducting a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial among adult patients who are infected by COVID-19 to test the efficacy of the medicine. Participants receive either a remdesivir drug or a placebo once a day for a maximum of 10 days. Healthcare workers will monitor the reactions of patients to the drug for 30 days. In the United States, 440 patients from about 50 sites will participate in this clinical trial.

According to the medical news website Stat, 113 severe COVID-19 patients who got daily infusions of remdesivir have been recovering rapidly, with most going home in less than a week. However, the clinical trial is still in its early stages, and there is no definite and complete conclusion about the safety and efficacy of remdesivir yet. Chief of Infectious Diseases at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Dr. Babafemi Taiwo hopes that investigators will know whether this therapy is effective in months.

Relieving the explosive demand for face shields with a single 3D printer

With the total confirmed cases of COVID-19 reaching 695,353 in the United States as of April 19, healthcare providers are running out of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE). This shortage of medical supplies has become an important issue in many countries that experience a continuous increase in the number of people infected by the virus. At Northwestern, researchers have managed to put a single 3D printer into use to ease this explosive demand. This 3D printer, using the high-area rapid printing (HARP) technology, was first published in the journal Science last October. Northwestern researchers can generate 1,000 components for face shields per day using HARP.

Northwestern’s Professor of Chemistry Chad  Mirkin as well as David Walker and James Hedrick, who are researchers in Mirkin’s laboratory, invented HARP together. It has a record-breaking throughput, or the rate of production, that enables the 3D printer to manufacture face shields faster than the other existing 3D printers. Traditional 3D printers often sacrifice manufacturing speed for the ability to generate larger parts, but the new HARP technology makes it possible to create high-quality products of different sizes and high throughput.

Although the need for face shields is enormous, Professor Mirkin told Northwestern Now that he believes HARP can “put a meaningful dent in that need” because it is so fast. Indeed, this 13-feet tall HARP 3D printer with a 2.5 square-foot print bed can print about half a yard in an hour. Volunteers are working in six-hour shifts to keep the production of face shields 24/7. Face shields created by this 3D printer are washable and reusable, and Professor Mirkin and his team are working on regulatory requirements to put the shields into use.