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UPDATED: April 1, 12:04 p.m.
Scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and the Broad Institute have begun new research on technologies for diagnostic testing of the novel coronavirus, according to two articles published on the institutes’ respective websites last week.
The initiatives come in response to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, which had caused more than 160,000 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths in the United States as of Tuesday evening. Wyss scientists have also begun projects to develop therapeutics, vaccines, and replacements for personal protective equipment.
Donald E. Ingber, the founding director of the Wyss Institute, said his team’s shortest-term diagnostic technology is to use their “organ-on-a-chip” to see if existing FDA-approved drugs may help combat COVID-19.
“These are microfluidic culture devices lined by human cells,” he said. “We were funded by DARPA, under a program that was called PREPARE that was really focused on being prepared to deal with viral pandemics.”
Using the organ on chips, Ingber’s team was previously able to mimic human systemic responses to various strains of influenza. That research proved critical when the lab quickly transitioned into developing diagnostic and therapeutic inventions to combat the coronavirus, he said.
“When the COVID-19 crisis emerged in January, my team very quickly pivoted and engineered a pseudo-type virus,” Ingber said.
Deborah T. Hung ’88, co-director of the Broad Institute’s Infectious Diseases and Microbiome Program, said the Institute is uniquely suited for running patient diagnostics due to its status as a “CLIA certified laboratory.” Hung said researchers at the Broad have been working on several new technologies and testing methods.
“There’s a lot of different ones that are being discussed out there,” she said. “[There is a] certain CRISPR enzyme called Cas13 — enzymes which can cleave RNA and be turned to infectious disease diagnostics.”
That technology could allow researchers to develop a COVID-19 test that could generate results in under an hour and cost ten dollars per test.
The technology adds to a growing repertoire of new initiatives from the Wyss Institute, including a special face mask and additional diagnostics that target blood antibodies. Ingber said the latter could be crucial during the endgame of the pandemic.
Though the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic continue to change on a daily basis, Hung noted that the collective effort the situation has prompted may have positive lasting effects on the scientific community.
“I’m very encouraged by everybody’s willingness to step up and try to play a role. It’s creating communities that are interacting in new ways,” Hung said. “It’s resulting in collaboration between scientists working together.”
“And hopefully, that all this effort will actually pay off to somehow lessen the impact of the pandemic,” she added.
Ingber agreed, citing the importance of scientific collaboration.
“There are no armies that are going to defend us in this war. It’s going to be physicians, engineers, and scientists,” Ingber said.
Correction: April 1, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Wyss Institute's "organ-on-a-chip" technology is being used to diagnose COVID-19. In fact, it is being used to examine whether certain drugs might serve as therapies for COVID-19.
—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.
—Staff writer Austin W. Li can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @austinwli.
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