Brainstorm: Unmasking the Research Behind COVID-19

Neya Thanikachalam and Jacob Fulton

When McCormick Professor Jiaxing Huang first heard about the spread of COVID-19 and the lockdown in Wuhan, China, he asked himself what he could do to help. Then, he began developing a new kind of mask.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Hi everyone, this is Neya Thanikachalam…

JACOB FULTON: …and this is Jacob Fulton.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: We’re back with another episode of Brainstorm, a podcast that explores all things health, science and tech. Today we’re looking into what some researchers at Northwestern are doing to help combat COVID-19.

The first reported case of COVID-19 was in Wuhan, China.

BROADCAST REPORTER: On December 31, as the world rang in the new year, Chinese authorities in Wuhan were treating dozens of cases of a severe pneumonia of an unknown origin.

RADIO REPORTER: Health authorities say in the last couple of days, they’ve identified dozens more people who’ve been infected, and that includes new cases in Beijing and Shenzhen.

RADIO REPORTER: And now the World Health Organization is convening an emergency meeting to look at how much of a threat the virus poses and whether international travel restrictions should be put in place to contain it.

JIAXING HUANG: After I first learned in the news about the Wuhan lockdown, the quarantine, I have a lot of former and current students in Wuhan and from Wuhan as well. So I talked to them and get to know, you know, how their families are doing. I started to think about what should we do?

JACOB FULTON: That’s McCormick Prof. Jiaxing Huang. He’s in materials sciences and engineering. Before the pandemic, his lab wasn’t doing anything related to fighting viruses.

JIAXING HUANG: So we actually have had a self transformation in the past few months. It is also worthy to pay attention to the problems in a society and to see what kind of problems can we help to solve, right? So that actually motivated us to pay attention to COVID-19 quite early on.

HAIYUE HUANG: We think that we cannot just sit there and then see the people suffering so much there.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s Haiyue Huang, a PhD student at McCormick. She works in Jiaxing’s lab. Jiaxing saw that everyone was on board to switch gears and focus on addressing problems related to the virus.

JIAXING HUANG: So we start to study textbooks, and we started developing questions, and we start to look into medical literature. That triggered a lot of ideas for us.

JACOB FULTON: After a lot of studying, Jiaxing decided to focus his research on two different projects.

JIAXING HUANG: When patients breathe out droplets, these droplets contain virus particles. So if we can just reduce the activity of the virus at this first step, you’re going to drastically cut down the infection later on.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Imagine a sneeze for a second.

Thousands of tiny droplets are expelled from your body. And if you’re infected, these droplets can be home to the infection or virus. Even when we wear masks, there are still fractions of droplets that can pass beyond the mask and infect someone.

JIAXING HUANG: It’s not necessary to protect the people who wear the masks. It was meant to protect people around you, around those infected person. Especially healthcare workers.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: The National Science Foundation gave Jiaxing’s lab a grant to develop a mask that can actually deactivate the virus particles when they pass through it. Virus hits the mask, virus deactivated. That way, they wouldn’t infect anyone. The lab did this by adding a chemical layer to the masks.

JIAXING HUANG: All the escaping droplet, they will pass through the screening layer, and then when they escape, they will escape with these antiviral chemicals and when it dried up, these antiviral chemicals will get drastically more concentrated in a droplet. And then hopefully that will reduce the activity.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Antiviral chemicals are kind of like virus kryptonite. They basically change the chemical structure of the virus so that it isn’t infectious anymore.

JIAXING HUANG: Now some people may ask that, “Why don’t you just block all the droplets?” But if you do that people can’t breathe. So you have to let them breathe and at the same time try to reduce the impact of those released viruses.

JACOB FULTON: The lab has also been trying to make surfaces antiviral.

HAIYUE HUANG: The virus, sometime they can live on the stainless steel for like three to four days.

JIAXING HUANG: And that’s very troubling because we use stainless steels all over the place, right? We use in a home in the handrails, doorknobs, buttons, medical appliances. So we thought that if we can retrofit all these stainless steel materials with an antiviral coating maybe we can help to reduce the spread of this virus.

JACOB FULTON: The lab has made a lot of progress with research. They’re trying to make a working prototype of the masks right now. But when Jiaxing started his research in late January, COVID-19 wasn’t widespread in the U.S.

JIAXING HUANG: At that time, obviously, people who have most experience about that is those doctors in China.

JACOB FULTON: Jiaxing wanted to know if any doctors in China were running into any specific problems that he could help fix. So, he started reaching out to his contacts in China.

JIAXING HUANG: I probed initially, but it was very difficult because they don’t have time. These doctors, I mean, all the doctors who were working at the front line of this, they were extremely overwhelmed.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: But in March, he tried again and got a response.

JIAXING HUANG: I mean, we can always sit in my office, in our offices and dream about this province, but it’s really the users in the end that tells you what the problem is.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: By talking to first responders, Jiaxing was able to understand a very important problem with the face masks, especially N95 masks.

These masks are different from cloth masks that a lot of people are making. They’re tight-fitting, and meant to filter out 95 percent of particles from the air. They’re essential to protecting a healthcare provider from the virus.

JIAXING HUANG: So, those masks has to be fit on your face really tight. But the mask manufacturing is one-size-fit-all.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Some doctors they talked to were using rubber bands to make sure the masks were sealed properly. Others were even using glue.

HAIYUE HUANG: So that can lead to some allergic reactions on their skin and, and they have to wear for a very long time, and it’s sweaty and humid and warm inside, which is very uncomfortable and they have to wear almost all day long.

JIAXING HUANG: OK, when I try the mask myself, I wouldn’t also realize that there’s gonna be a problem, because I only wear it for maybe half an hour. OK? I mean, you only wear it to experience it. But imagine you have to put this thing on for eight hours.

So for us, that means that we need to develop a new mask-skin interface, or we need to design either the shape better or just have another layer of material.

JACOB FULTON: Jiaxing is actually talking about these problems with Northwestern students in the classes he teaches.

JIAXING HUANG: And I’m getting wonderful feedback from them. So they are jumping in and try to figure out the solution. So I’m letting them use this problem as their class project. Everybody can help, OK. You just have to channel your energy and resources.

So I hope to bridge the connections between the frontline doctors. Many of the ideas were either validated by them or inspired by them. And we present these to the broad, physical science engineering community. There are lots of smart people out there, so if I just present a problem to them, then I think they will be able to work on this. They can develop something.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s all that we have for today. Thanks for listening. This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam and Jacob Fulton. The audio editor is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected], [email protected]
Twitter: @neyachalam, @jacobnfulton1

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