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OU amid coronavirus: Researchers, students continue exploration of improved COVID-19 testing methods

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Coronavirus COVID-19

OU researchers and graduate students discussed their work with a Norman-based company to develop a faster COVID-19 testing process in a Zoom press conference Wednesday afternoon. 

OU associate professor of microbiology Bradley Stevenson and OU graduate student Emily Junkins said their team is working with IMMY — a company that manufactures, markets and distributes tests for infectious diseases — to use liquid-handling robots to extract viral genetic material needed for COVID-19 testing. He said the robots would be able to extract the material from swab samples, which would then allow for coronavirus testing of the material.

Each robot would be able to extract about 96 samples at a time, Stevenson said, which would amplify coronavirus testing rates tenfold. He said his team has ordered two robots, and they should arrive at IMMY by Friday. 

Stevenson said his team isn’t the only one trying to use liquid-handling robots for coronavirus testing, and his team has obtained the robots through Opentrons, an open-source platform for liquid-handling robots. He said Opentrons has a community of scientists that use and develop robots, and they share the robots and the programming widely. 

The robots that have been ordered to IMMY are considerably cheaper than comparable models, Stevenson said, and each one is about $10,000. 

Stevenson’s team has also been sharing its protocol for extracting genetic material, he said, as well as problems they’ve run into. 

“We’re working with industry and government, and it’s been really interesting to see how it’s quickly evolved,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said his team studies microorganisms in different environments, so they’re able to do a lot of the molecular biology needed to do coronavirus testing. He said IMMY President and CEO Sean Bauman reached out to him, asking if Stevenson's team could provide IMMY with resources for testing. 

“As soon as any kit comes on the list as being approved, it gets impossible to get any more because everyone in the world’s doing this test right now,” Stevenson said. 

To work around the lack of testing supplies, Stevenson said he and the scientists at IMMY began using magnetic beads they made in the lab to extract genetic material instead of the manual columns that are normally used. 

“I realized that we had enough beads for about 10,000 tests just in our lab, and that if we developed the (extraction) protocol, or found one that we could use and got it to work, then IMMY would be insulated from supply chain issues,” Stevenson said. 

Stevenson said normally, to test for infectious diseases, researchers separate out certain parts of cells in each sample and push those sections through a membrane. The genetic material needed for testing binds to the membrane, and researchers wash the parts of the cell that they don’t need away. 

Stevenson’s team has been replacing the membrane with magnetic beads, he said, and the genetic material has been binding better to the beads than the membrane. He said the beads are better when using the liquid-handling robots, as they can’t pick up tubes as easily as humans can.

Stevenson said he and Junkins have been working for the past week on developing extraction protocol using the beads and increasing efficiency so they can use liquid-handling robots. He also said 85 other employees are helping his team. 

This new development is critically important to help improve testing capabilities and better allocate resources around the state, Stevenson said. 

“If you have somebody in the hospital who’s sick — you don’t know if they have it or not — they’re wasting (personal protective equipment). ... That’s really precious material,” Stevenson said. “And if you can determine that they don’t have COVID-19, you can treat them differently, move them out of that situation.”

Ari Fife is the OU Daily assistant news managing editor and a junior journalism major minoring in international studies and political science. Previously, she served as the summer editor-in-chief, a senior news reporter and an SGA beat reporter.

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