Researchers Schoolwide Unite to Facilitate COVID-19 Testing

Published April 22, 2020

With COVID-19 tests and testing materials in short supply across the nation, researchers from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences have joined together to help compensate for the shortage.

“It was truly amazing how quickly everyone came together ... Within a few days, we had all the essential reagents, we had assembled a team, and we were making VTM. ”
SUNY Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology
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“Many individuals from the Jacobs School rapidly responded to this shortage by dedicating their time, their reagents and their facilities, which is an excellent example of teamwork involving a combination of both clinical and basic science expertise,” says Anthony A. Campagnari, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology, who is the senior associate dean for research and graduate education.

Providing Viral Transport Media to Kaleida

As clinical chief of service at Kaleida Health Laboratories, John E. Tomaszewski, MD — SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Peter A. Nickerson, PhD, Professor and Chair of pathology and anatomical sciences — is at the heart of the COVID-19 testing process for Kaleida Health.

When Tomaszewski sent an email noting a need for more viral transport media (VTM), Campagnari and other researchers throughout the Jacobs School teamed up and found a way to provide Kaleida Health with approximately 1,000 tubes of VTM each week — for as long as necessary.

VTM are critical for any tests involving viral detection. “In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the nasopharyngeal swab that is used to take a sample from the patient is placed directly into a tube of sterile VTM,” says Campagnari. “So every COVID-19 test that involves a nasal swab utilizes VTM.”

This media contains proteins that stabilize the virus until the sample can be properly analyzed. VTM includes buffers to control pH as well as antibiotics and antifungals to prevent or eliminate bacteria or fungi from contaminating the clinical sample.

Inquiries About Reagents Result in Donations

Other Jacobs School researchers reached out, too. James D. Bangs, PhD, Grant T. Fisher Professor and chair of microbiology and immunology, sent an email asking if anyone had the chemical reagents needed to make the VTM.

Almost immediately, faculty members responded. Elsa Bou Ghanem, PhD, an assistant professor in the department, provided enough Hank’s Balanced Salt Solution and heat-inactivated Fetal Bovine Serum — two major components in VTM — to make approximately 25 liters, enough for 8,000 tubes.

Inquiries about additional reagents resulted in more donations from the Department of Biochemistry Stockroom, thanks to Mark R. O‘Brian, PhD, professor and chair of biochemistry, and staffers Amy Raslawsky and Dawn Rowland, who provided the essential antibiotic.

Campagnari then connected with Nicholas Ingrao at Kaleida labs, who provided the antifungal agent they needed to complete the VTM. Nicole Luke-Marshall, PhD, research assistant professor, and Lisa Hansen — both of Campagnari’s lab group, who have extensive experience in proper sterile technique — also volunteered to help.

“It was truly amazing how quickly everyone came together. ... Within a few days, we had all the essential reagents, we had assembled a team, and we were making VTM,” Campagnari says.

Expanding to Serve ECMC, Catholic Health

Soon after the researchers began providing Kaleida Health with tubes of VTM, Catholic Health and Erie County Medical Center asked if they, too, could receive VTM for their testing labs. 

In response, Campagnari increased production and expanded the team to include Chelsie E. Armbruster, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, and her lab manager, Brian S. Learman. 

ECMC and Catholic Health have requested 200 and 150 tubes per day, respectively. Distribution has already begun and is handled through the Kaleida labs.

Providing VTM tubes to Catholic Health and ECMC “is a major increase in our commitment and could significantly increase the amount of local testing,” says Campagnari. 

“While we will do our very best to supply the amount needed by each lab, this is not an automated process. This is good old-fashioned manual labor — it’s ‘roll up your sleeves’ and get down to work — so it does take time,” he notes. 

Faculty Provide Use of Biosafety Cabinets

Campagnari and his team followed what they termed a simple “recipe,” adding each reagent at the proper concentration, filter sterilizing the solution and then portioning 3 milliliters of VTM into 15-milliliter sterile tubes.  

It requires working in a biosafety cabinet with an automatic pipettor and disposable pipettes. 

Campagnari notes that they were fortunate because Thomas A. Russo, MD, professor of medicine and chief of infectious diseases — along with Armbruster — let them use their biosafety cabinets.

“As we now had three biosafety cabinets, we were also able to practice social distancing while making the VTM,” he says.

Once the samples are prepared, each tube must be properly labeled. “While it is somewhat tedious and time consuming, it is not difficult,” Campagnari explains.

He notes that other regions experiencing VTM shortages should identify research labs in the vicinity that also might be able to help.

Machine Increases Area’s Testing Capacity

Fortunately, an important piece of laboratory instrumentation — provided by Abbott Laboratories to support the clinical research of Andrew H. Talal, MD, professor of medicine — has increased the area’s testing capacity.

Years ago, Kaleida Health agreed to host this machine at its Center for Laboratory Medicine. It’s called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, and it allows for the detection of viral nucleic acids. The methodology can be designed to specifically identify COVID-19 in clinical samples. 

“There have been issues with laboratory testing capacity everywhere,” says Tomaszewski, who is also president of UBMD Pathology. “This partnership between UB and Kaleida Health came about because of the clinical trial research of one of our faculty members, and now it’s become a critical piece of the community’s COVID-19 response.”

“We have leveraged this machine to do testing for COVID-19, and it’s the only reason we are doing any testing,” Tomaszewski notes. “This is because of the UB academic health center partnership and the interaction between the clinical research at UB and the clinical treatment that’s going on at Kaleida Health.”

Talal adds: “This was an opportunity for research and clinical care to proceed harmoniously so that during this pandemic, we could take advantage of the placement of this machine within Kaleida as a research tool.”

“The machine has traditionally been used to measure the level of hepatitis C virus in the blood and liver, investigation that is supported by the Kaleida Health Foundation,” says Talal, who is a leading researcher on hepatitis C virus.

“This is an illustration of how the foundation’s support is directly enabling us to improve the health of the community.”