At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, an interdisciplinary group of College of Sciences researchers teamed up with colleagues in the College of Engineering and quickly pivoted away from their normal research areas – astrobiology, the evolution of RNA and DNA, the role of proteins in diseases like glaucoma – and began using their skills to produce more desperately-needed virus test kits for Georgia residents.
Other schools and colleges at Georgia Tech have also been involved in efforts to build virus tests, along with researching vaccines and therapeutic treatments, building personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizer, virology modeling, and more.
Now the interdisciplinary efforts led by College of Sciences researchers to develop a “recipe” for creating virus test kits are detailed in a research paper published September 3 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which has selected the work as a September "Editor's Pick".
Samantha Mascuch, a postdoctoral scholar with the School of Biological Sciences, and Sara Fakhrehtaha-Aval, a graduate student in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, are co-first authors of “A blueprint for academic labs to produce SARS-CoV-2 RT-qPCR test kits.”
Jennifer Glass, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and two professors from the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Loren Williams and Raquel Lieberman, are the co-corresponding authors of the paper.
The Georgia Tech COVID-19 Test Kit Support Group includes researchers from the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences; the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering; the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (which Georgia Tech shares with Emory University); and the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology. The Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine also participated.
The group’s researchers are also part of the Georgia COVID-19 State Lab Surge Capacity Task Force, which is managed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
The “RT-qPCR” in the paper’s title refers to quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, a form of virus testing that is considered “the most robust, sensitive, and specific assay currently available,” according to the paper’s abstract.
In the spring, 35 volunteers helped turn campus labs into assembly lines for the components needed for virus test kits. The paper details how academic biochemistry and molecular biology labs equipped with appropriate expertise and infrastructure can produce the RT-qPCR assay and fill in shortages in testing pipelines.
Lieberman, whose research includes studies of proteins involved in certain forms of childhood-onset glaucoma, says her experience with the group also helped her with her normal research goals. “My lab learned some new tricks for mass producing proteins,” she says. “One of those tricks has inspired us to revisit how we produce one of our workhorse proteins in the lab. We also learned about all sorts of cool instrumentation and expertise across campus -- instruments and folks we should have learned of or met years ago, but had not connected with prior to participating in this project.
“Working on this project was a great way for my lab to leverage its expertise, and simultaneously learn a new area of biochemistry, one with the ultimate real-life application.”
“Our work with Covid-19 taught us to be expert at counting viral RNA molecules,” Williams says. “We see many applications of this technology in our research on ribosomal RNAs. We have now purchased our own QuantStudio, which is a machine we used for RT-qPCR analysis of viral RNA.”