NC universities get inventive to fight coronavirus

NC universities are getting creative to fight the coronavirus. Here's a sample of what they are working on. 


April 10, 2020 

Duke Lab Looks Closely at Those Mysterious Spikes on Covid-19 Virus

The coronavirus gets its name from the spikes sticking out of the virus. Different variations of coronavirus have their own uniquely shaped “crowns” or spikes.

But it’s those spike proteins that are the part of the virus that attaches with the host and helps the virus enter into human cells. Scientists believe by learning how the structure and function of the spikes work, they might be able to create a better vaccine to stop Covid-19.

That’s where Duke University’s cryo-electron microscope helps. It’s called the Titan Krios (cryo-EM for short). The multimillion-dollar instrument is able to “see” proteins at the atomic level by snapping hundreds of thousands of molecular images. It then uses computer software to create 3D images and then a model of the virus.

“We are using the information to learn, at a basic level, how the spike functions, and translate this knowledge for use in vaccine design,” said Priyamvada Acharya, PhD, an associate professor of surgery in the School of Medicine and director of the Division of Structural Biology at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

UNC Researchers Finding Early Success with Coronavirus Drugs

Researchers at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are finding early success with two drugs that could help in the fight against Covid-19. The first drug is called Remdesivir.

“In the lab we’ve shown that Remdisivir works against any coronavirus we’ve tested so far, including the common cold virus as well as the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr. Tim Sheahan, PhD, a virologist at the Gillings School of Public Health. Trials of Remdesivir using IV’s have already started in China and the United States. There’s also the drug EIDD-2901, which has been shown to reduce lung damage in mice infected with the Covid-19 virus when given within 24 hours after infection.

“That window of treatment is expected to be longer in humans because the period between disease onset and death is generally extended in humans compared to mice,” said Ralph Baric, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology, also at the Gillings School of Public health. Trials in mice are completed and testing is starting in humans.

Duke/UNC Chapel Hill Partner to Create Medical Face Shields

The first batch of reusable face shields designed by a Duke-led task force is now being used by medical staff at Duke Health and UNC Health. More than two dozen Duke nurses, graduate nursing students, medical professionals and engineers studied the needs of health care workers and tested the 3D face shields in a simulation lab.The shields were designed by Duke MEDX, a collaborative venture between the Duke School of Medicine and the Pratt School of Engineering. Production will be turned over to private companies.

The design calls for a 3-D printed headband that forms a face shield when attached to a laser-cut polycarbonate lens, which is a lightweight piece of plastic with high-impact resistance.

New Textile Designed at NC State Perfect for Surgical Masks

North Carolina State University’s Nonwovens Institute is manufacturing a filtering material that can produce up to 500,000 surgical masks per day. These masks will be used to protect health care workers and first responders on the front lines fighting the effects of COVID-19.

“A unique spunbond nonwoven material created at NC State has excellent filtering capability and can potentially be reused after cleaning with peroxide or an alcohol solution,” said Behnam Pourdeyhimi, executive director of the NWI.

Think of an air mask as a kind of sandwich. N95 respirators and surgical masks are generally one or two common non-woven layers that provide the mask shape and an inner filtration layer, combined with a non-woven meltblown material that serves as the filtration layer and captures microscopic unwanted particles like viruses and bacteria.

Because of the desperate need for face masks, the NWI team created a new spunbond material that can serve as an effective filter without the need for a meltblown filtration layer. The unique fabric is made of two different polymer materials that are combined to make a single fiber with significant strength and bulk. It’s also shown to be as effective at filtering microscopic particles as the current masks. Currently, NWI’s machines can produce 20,000 meters of the spunbond material in one day. One-meter equals 20 to 25 masks.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.