Fighting With Science

In Feature Stories, May 2020 by Tracy JonesLeave a Comment

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NC State is working to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic by creating, innovating and donating.

As the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world, Raleigh residents, businesses and institutions are all doing their parts to help flatten the curve and help those who need it most. NC State, the largest university in North Carolina and a hub for research and innovation, is no exception. From students making protective masks using 3D printers to campus-incubated companies supplying vital tools to the scientific and medical communities, the university is at the forefront of the fight against this novel coronavirus. 

Every Little Bit Helps

We all want to contribute where we can but it can be challenging to know where to start. 

Corbin Kling went to what he knows.

Kling—a doctorate candidate in planetary geology in NC State’s Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences—is one of several students creating face shields for healthcare workers on the front lines of COVID-19 relief. Using an at-home 3D printer, Kling has been creating face shields and surgical mask ear relievers since the beginning of April; when we spoke to him last month, he had made more than 200 face shields and more than 400 surgical mask ear relief pieces.

“I have a friend in Duke ER and another in WakeMed who are both very grateful for whatever I can get to them,” says Kling. “Being able to fill the stop gap in commercial shields shortage and delivery will help the medical community feel more protected.”

Kling says he noticed at the end of March that the company that manufactures his 3D printer, Prusa Research, was rapidly developing a face shield design. The company got the design approved through the government health ministry in its native Czech Republic and then posted the design online.

“At that point, I calculated that I could probably print over 100 [masks] of that design,” says Kling. “My department at NC State donated some overhead transparencies to me for the clear front part so I could get started.”

Kling has since changed designs twice as the National Institute of Health began clinical trials to rapidly approve 3D printed face shield designs submitted to its repository. Now, Kling is making sure to print only NIH-approved shield designs to ensure they will be accepted at hospitals.

“Once the approved design came out, everyone was trying to figure out how to help,” says Kling. “I have been delivering most of my stuff to friends and friends of friends, or whoever contacts me with a need. Anyone can reach out. I have myself and two friends in Fayetteville all printing shields and mask relief pieces. I can deliver them to anyone within the Triangle.”

If you are available to make supplies, check out GetUsPPE.org to find a donation center.

Production

NC State’s Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics is also stepping up, using 3D printing to create face shields for WakeMed. The lab is currently producing an average of 200 face shields each day for health care workers, delivered through WakeMed’s shipping and handling department. The shields and the frames are reusable; each can be used two to three times and sanitized with alcohol, clorox wipes or in a heating device.

Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University

“We have been producing the face shields 24/7, for about two weeks now,” says Matthew White, an NC State integrated manufacturing systems engineering graduate research assistant who is leading the project. “We are currently working with WakeMed to determine other devices that can support their efforts and are working directly with them to design a device that improves the seal around their respirator masks.”

The group is in talks with other hospitals in the area for delivering any surplus units they may produce. CAMAL has also received several donations through the community printing effort organized at the university.

“Our effort is helping fill the gap in the traditional supply chain,” says White. “Once the mass production of the face shields comes back online and catches up with demand, we will pivot our efforts to support the other needs from the hospitals. We have a good relationship with WakeMed and are working diligently and iteratively to design and prototype devices that will help ease the burden.”

Innovation

Originally founded by an NC State entrepreneur in residence and engineering students in the Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Program in NC State’s Poole College of Management, startup Protochips is working to assist researchers studying COVID-19. 

Protochips is one of only two companies in the world that manufactures a critical supply for the transmission electron microscopy market to visualize the novel coronavirus. The other supplier is located in Europe and is now months behind in being able to deliver these critical components, according to Protochips CEO David Nackashi. 

In simple terms, Protochips produces devices that contain viruses, including COVID-19, while they are imaged in state-of-the-art electron microscopes. You can’t just take a virus and throw it on a microscope, Nackashi explains. His company’s devices “hold” the virus safely so people can study it.

Protochips manufactures products for biological and materials science researchers in more than 600 government labs, university research centers and corporate research and development centers in 27 countries. Many of them, including NIH, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, New York Structural Biology Center and the Scripps Research Institute are using their specimen support grid specifically for research on the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, specifically to understand how it attaches to and infects human cells. 

“One of our customers, McLellan Lab at the University of Texas, determined the 3D structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, a critical first step towards developing a vaccine, using our specimen support in their workflow,” says Nackashi. “This reconstruction has now become widely used, including on the homepage of the CDC.”

Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University

Protochips also builds accessories for electron microscopes and is a preferred critical component supplier to Japan’s JEOL and Thermo Fisher Scientific located in the U.S. Between the two of them, those companies produce more than 90 percent of the world’s transmission electron microscopes and both have been designated by the Japanese and U.S. governments as critical manufacturers.

Protochips was incubated on Centennial Campus and the company still uses NC State’s Nanofabrication Facility and its Analytical Instrumentation Facility for research and production.

“We have a long and multifaceted relationship with NC State University that has included many successful partnerships in science and human capital,” says Michael Zapata, the company’s executive chairman.

Internal Support

Two years ago, NC State created a Student Emergency Fund in response to the number of students experiencing food and/or housing insecurity. The fund is used to assist students experiencing unexpected financial emergencies and has been deployed following Hurricane Florence, and now, during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“In all cases, we work to respond to the student in a timely fashion to connect them to available resources,” says assistant vice provost and student ombuds Mike Giancola. “We have been fortunate to have so many donors from the Wolfpack family that want to support students during this challenging time so they can focus their attention on their studies.”

As of mid-April, the fund has provided more than 1,200 grants totaling approximately $600,000 to students.

“As of March 13, we have received over 1,500 applications for support from students, although there are likely many more students being impacted,” says Giancola. “About 65 percent of our applicants have lost jobs due to COVID-19.”

Most of the requests from students during the pandemic have focused on food and rent assistance, as well as technology needs to transition to online learning. Additionally, students have had transportation needs after having to unexpectedly end their study abroad experiences.

“One of the biggest challenges moving forward for students is the uncertainty of when they might be able to return to work as well as how they will continue to afford attending college in the summer and fall semesters if their families have been impacted financially by COVID-19,” Giancola says.

For information about supporting the Student Emergency Fund helping NC State students, visit give.ncsu.edu/student-emergency-fund.

Donations

NC State has been donating as well as innovating. 

Upon publication, the College of Veterinary Medicine has donated two ventilators, 500 PPE suits with hoods, 450 N95 masks and 500 surgical masks to UNC’s medical school. The physics department also donated eight cases of gloves and a few organic filters for masks to UNC Healthcare.

Photo courtesy of North Carolina State University

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering provided face shields, gloves, masks, respirators and coveralls to Rex Wellness Center.

“The department got a request from somewhere within the UNC system for materials that a hospital could utilize,” says Joseph Matthews, the research operations manager for the department. “Our researchers deal with biological and chemical exposure and the same protective equipment is utilized in both situations. These researchers are conducting their own research and buying their own supplies and housing them. We liberated all of the extras that we could and left a token amount to be able to restart when we get the green light.”

NC State’s Emergency Management and Mission Continuity unit collected and donated 329 boxes of gloves, 16 boxes of disposable lab coats, two boxes of shoe covers, one box of face masks, 125 pairs of safety glasses/goggles, 2,772 N95 respirators, surface wipes and hand sanitizer to Capital Regional Advisory Committee.

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