NIH invests in Ohio State research to combat COVID-19, prevent future outbreaks

Posted: February 11, 2021
Eduardo Reátegui (right) works in his lab with a student. 

An interdisciplinary team at The Ohio State University is developing a new testing technology to combat the current coronavirus pandemic and to address future viral outbreaks.

Led by Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Assistant Professor Eduardo Reátegui and Professor Emeritus L. James Lee, the research team has earned a two-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative. The Ohio State project will utilize existing microarray technology Reátegui and Lee developed in their labs initially for the characterization of single extracellular vesicles from biofluids.

Funding from the RADx Radical (RADx-rad) program supports new, non-traditional approaches and reimagined uses of existing tools to address gaps in COVID-19 testing and surveillance.

There are two main categories of coronavirus tests: viral testing, which includes both PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and antigen tests; and serology testing. Viral tests, using a nasal swab, throat swab, or saliva, measure current infection. PCR tests assess the presence of SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acids, while antigen tests can detect viral protein particles. Serology tests, also known as antibody tests, look for past infection using blood.

EVs captured on the surface of a microfluidic device
Extracellular vesicles captured on the surface of a microfluidic device.

“Given the resemblance in size and other similar characteristics between extracellular vesicles and coronaviruses, our technology can be adapted for COVID-19 diagnosis,” explained Reátegui. “Our method, called multi-parametric detection, will be engineered to simultaneously measure viral protein, viral RNA and host antibodies in different biofluids including plasma, saliva, or nasopharyngeal swabs, enabling enhanced diagnosis, disease status and prognostic assessment.”

Once optimized, the system would have far greater sensitivity and precision—potentially 100 times as much—than existing viral and antibody testing methods, said Reátegui.

“To solve a problem as complicated as COVID-19, we need ideas, tools, and technologies that challenge the way we think about pandemic control,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “These awards from the RADx-rad program provide superb examples of outside-the-box concepts that will help us overcome this pandemic and give us a cadre of devices and tactics to confront future outbreaks.”

Blood sample running through a microfluidic device
Blood sample running through a microfluidic device.

The multidisciplinary team includes: Professor Preeti Pancholi, Clinical Pathology, College of Medicine; Professor Shan-Lu Liu, Co-Director of the Virus and Emerging Pathogen Program of the Infectious Disease Institute, College of Veterinary Medicine; and Professor Kai Wang from the Institute for Systems Biology. Other collaborators on the project include the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, which will provide pediatric clinical samples.

The project is currently in phase one, focused on optimization and feasibility, and the research team is encouraged by early results. Ohio State’s depth and breadth is a major advantage when tackling a problem as complex as COVID-19, said Reátegui.

“It’s a unique strength of Ohio State being a university that has so many people with different areas of expertise,” he said. “It gives you the opportunity to form this type of research team that is truly multidisciplinary.”

NIH has awarded more than $107 million through the RADx-rad program, which will support 49 research projects and grant supplements at 43 institutions across the United States. It will focus on non-traditional viral screening approaches, such as biological or physiological markers, new analytical platforms with novel chemistries or engineering, rapid detection strategies, point-of-care devices, and home-based testing technologies.

 by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |

Categories: COVID–19Research