Week 14 – It’s a Start…
Hope you are all doing well. Life has changed so much since the beginning of the year. I would like to point out (always being an optimist) that these types of crises tend to bring out the best in people. These stories tend to get lost in the news but if you think about a majority of people practicing social distancing and limiting travel, giving up their freedoms to fight a common foe, it is a pretty impressive undertaking. It is something we are not used to as Americans, but when times get tough, we always step up. We are not perfect and it’s easy to focus on that imperfection, but I like to focus on the good in people. I hope that this situation starts to ease the negative talk that we’ve been using, the “us” vs “them” and to understand we are all in this together.
We will need to work together to find a solution to this virus, and likely the viruses that will come in the future. I am so impressed by what people have been developing in their own homes and businesses, from making fabric masks and domed ventilators to hand-sanitizers from microbreweries and CBD companies and the Kraft family flying in protective gear. There is nothing that we as Americans cannot overcome. It is a global issue that will require us to work with the world. Our lives depend on it. We cannot forget that the work to fight these viruses has to continue long after the peak goes down. We tend to live by the motto “out of sight, out of mind” which for viruses and diseases, is a fool’s game. After the last SARS outbreak, once the peak went down, all research stopped and funds to investigate it dried up. Continued research could have had a positive effect on this virus, but that did not happen. I am not saying this as a scientist working in this space who has something to gain (because this is not my area), but rather as a person who wants a treatment for everyone.
As scientists, we want to be able to use our skill set to see if we can make a small difference. We are fortunate to have some tools in our lab that we can apply to the problem. We think that there are a couple of areas we can help. Many years ago, when the Anthrax scare and SARS were present, we were working with a mask producer to try to develop a “trap and kill” mask material. As I mentioned earlier, once these issues were under control, the drive to develop something new came to a screeching halt (sound familiar?). This drove the mask manufacturer, one of the leading producers in the US, to close this portion of his business. I understand his frustration in that people want these protective devices when a crisis hits but then do nothing to stock up for the future. You need to also be able to run a business and this is not practical.
I give you this background because we have some mask materials from this research. We are not a mask producer so we, like so many, are doing this out of need and are trying our best to provide a device that could help. We also have some equipment to ultrasonically weld these components together from another study we are conducting for Takeda. We have some plastic sheets (Mylar) for a face shield portion on the masks. We searched to find elastic for ear pieces and found our friend had a source (shout out to the Graves family). We needed a nose piece to form fit around the nose. We found this in a twist tie used in one of our sterilization bags. The biggest key is that we can form the types of small fibers needed for the materials to make a mask. It is amazing that just by searching around the lab, we found many of the components to form the mask. It was then time to see if we could put them all together.
Our first goal was to electrospin a polyester sheet (polyester is used to make the current masks) that could contain nanosilver within the fibers. Silver, copper and metal ions have been shown by some investigators to inactivate the virus after several hours of contact. We would need to test this to confirm this ourselves but figured adding this into the fiber could be more beneficial than not. Having a mask with the potential to kill the virus with the thought that these will likely be reused (what is currently going on) could be a benefit. We were able to electrospin this material right onto a nonwoven mask backing. A good first step. Next, we were able to use equipment in the lab to see how small the fibers are and compare them to current mask fibers. We were able to show that our fibers are about 2 times smaller, which could help with trapping particles like viruses. Also, reached out to my targeted end-user (my daughter Tarryn who is an ICU nurse) to get her thoughts on what is required. Breathability while protecting is critical since they are using these masks constantly. This was helpful since I am thinking thicker is better, but there has to be a balance. This information was really important.
We used a shield mask we had as a model. We put all of these components together using our ultrasonic welding equipment the other night. The next step was to try it. Since I was the maker, I would need to be the test subject. I started to walk around the lab and Tina, who was down at the other end of the space, started to chuckle since she didn’t expect me to come down the hall with a mask on. Hence, the reason for the photo (not a fan of my photo). I wanted to make sure it was possible to wear the mask comfortably. We have our first prototype! Some changes are needed but we are getting there. Not too bad for a non-mask company. Time to see if we can ramp this up a little.
Please stay safe and healthy. It is going to be harder as the weather gets better (for all of us). Continue to listen to CDC guidance by practicing social distancing, washing your hands and staying at home when you can. Support your local restaurants and businesses as much as possible by purchasing take-out and using curbside purchasing, respectively. So
many people are hurting as an indirect effect of the virus so every little bit helps.