Testing, vaccines and environmental monitoring: Northwestern’s research contributions to the pandemic


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

The Daily examined some of Northwestern’s most innovative and influential COVID-19 research.

Nicole Markus, Senior Staffer

As the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed scientists across the world to new frontiers of medical innovations, Northwestern researchers have been among the leading contributors.

Over the past two years, NU scientists have laid the groundwork for testing, vaccines and environmental monitoring in the case of future pandemics. The Daily examined some of the University’s notable research accomplishments since the beginning of the pandemic and spoke to the people behind them.

Wearable COVID-19 monitors

Healthcare workers can remotely monitor patients in recovery with a wearable COVID-19 sensor that NU researchers have developed. 

The soft, flexible sensors sit at the base of the wearer’s neck at the suprasternal notch. McCormick Prof. John Rogers, who led the project, said the location is optimal because it is “at the crossroads” of important bodily functions like the respiratory, cardiac and neural systems.

“It’s kind of like a Fitbit for the neck,” Rogers said.

According to Rogers, the sensors measure coughing, a vital indicator of respiratory illness that hospitals often don’t track. As a monitoring tool, he said the device created “peace of mind” for patients worried about self-monitoring symptoms after being released from the hospital.

Rogers said the technology could be applied to other pandemics and respiratory illnesses.

“Being able to (track vitals remotely) has opened up all kinds of different collaborations,” Rogers said. “In fact, we’re kind of strapped to just keep up with the demand.”

Nanoparticle-based COVID-19 vaccines

NU researchers developed a new nanoparticle-based vaccine against COVID-19, which focuses on the presentation of components key to a successful vaccine to the body. 

“It might seem rather intuitive, because any drug, any pill, they all have a very unique structure,” said chemistry postdoctoral fellow Michelle Teplensky, a co-first author of the study. “Structure plays a very important role, but it wasn’t something that people in vaccine design actually focused on.”

Teplensky said this vaccine targets the receptor-binding domain, a small portion of COVID-19’s spike protein, which is the part of the virus that ultimately leads to infection. 

This unique method, termed rational vaccinology, could provide a host of benefits, including reduced side effects, more potent delivery and a maximized response, Teplensky said.

While the vaccine is not yet in clinical trials, it has already shown a positive response in mice. Teplensky said the patented technology could be used to fight future pandemics.

“We’ve already got the structure figured out, we’ve already shown we can get great immune responses,” Teplensky said. “We’re thinking a bit more down the road, demonstrating that this is a platform.”

Large-scale testing

To monitor COVID-19 infections within populations, NU researchers are working on new diagnostic and antibody testing.

Typically, antibody testing requires venous blood tests, but anthropology Prof. Thomas McDade  and his team developed testing that features a minimally invasive finger prick. The filter paper used preserves the blood, allowing for an easier test.  

“Our approach combines the convenience and the safety of collecting blood in people’s homes  by themselves with the rigorous and accurate quantification that’s possible in a lab,” McDade said. “It’s sort of the best of both worlds.”

The test can determine the difference between antibodies created by vaccines and those created by infection so that users could determine whether they had ever had COVID-19, he said. Scientists can gather information about large numbers of people at relatively low cost, he added.

McCormick Prof. and principal investigator Julius Lucks worked with his team to develop a one-step diagnostic tool that could similarly be used for monitoring. The goal of the test is to be as accurate as a PCR test, but more easily accessible, Lucks said. 

Researchers are testing the tool to see if it can monitor a population’s wastewater, which allows for infection detection two weeks ahead of potential hospitalization, he said. 

“This could be a platform for surveillance and monitoring of immunity with future pandemics,” McDade said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nicolejmarkus

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