Week 15 – Back to the Future…
Hope you are all doing well and are staying safe. I would like to start out this week’s blog by saying a big thanks for all of the well wishes and encouraging words we have received over the past week about what we are working on. We are inspired to help in a small way by the courageous and selfless medical professionals and first responders who are putting their health on the line for us. We should also include all of the blue-collar workers who are risking being exposed to the virus so the rest of us can continue to get the things we need to survive. All of your efforts are not lost and we are forever grateful for all of your sacrifices. All of these folks are the true heroes!
As I was thinking about where we’re at now, I looked back to where we started. Reminds me of the movie with that I based the blog title on. Back in the late 90’s, I began working with some great folks (shout out to John Berkley, Dom Tommarello and John Hogan at Berkley Medical Resources) who were focused on making N95 masks that had a bioactive or killing surface. Most masks trap virus and bacteria but they are not killed within the mask if they get there. We started to put together a program by figuring out what active agent we were going to add, how would we test the device, how we would mass produce the product and rounded up some political support to bring in federal funding. We developed test procedures that would be specific for this mask material. We were ready to go. Unfortunately, on my end, there was an unexpected delay that was out of my control and as fast as we put this together, the interest from the government waned and the idea was shelved. The equipment we developed was placed into cabinets because most scientists are pack rats. We also understand that science is cyclical and research areas come back around.
When we started BioSurfaces in 2003, I was able to bring some old equipment with me that was going to be discarded. One of the pieces I brought with me was the mask testing equipment. I put it in a drawer not sure if I would ever use it but since I helped to develop it, it had a special place in my heart. In 2004, the Anthrax scare hit. The concept of bringing bioactive masks back to protect people resurfaced. We reached out to John and his team
to start the discussion. We submitted grants to the federal government. I pulled the testing equipment out of the drawer. You can see where this story is going. Yes, the government lost interest, grants were not funded and back the equipment went back into the drawer.
Fast forward to today, 16 years after the last time I thought about a mask. I had many of the components from the mask from our previous work in 2004 (we are pack rats as I mentioned). Using these materials and combining them with our electrospinning technology, we have been able to make a prototype that I am content with. That being said, I am just trying to make sure I can perform some testing on the final product. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I am not a mask producer so we are performing testing to the best of our abilities. I remembered that testing device I put into the drawer when we move to our current space in 2010. I dusted it off, repaired some of the pieces and put it back into operation this week (Figure 1). What we are looking to test is air flow across the mask material (Figure 2). We compare air flow using humidity measurements across standard mask materials and our material. This requires us to cut a mask into segments and put
those directly into the air flow. We want to see if flow across our mask is not restricted or is too high. Either one is not good in terms of wearability and protection. We are finishing testing today and data so far looks comparable. We know our fibers are smaller than current fibers as shown in data in our last blog so we believe that virus trapping should be comparable. I wish we could do more testing but we do not have the ability or equipment. I believe that this mask will provide as much if not more protection than homemade masks and we will start to make some next week.
I have learned enough from my past experiences that I am not going to dive into this with blinders on. I believe that, like all of the other times, once life gets back to normal, people will forget about these devices until the next outbreak. This time, I am thinking about it on the terms of how we can help in a small way and not mass producing these devices. We are also making some significant progress on our cell culture insert plates, which may be able to be used to grow airway cells that could be used to screen for COVID-19 treatments. We are trying to apply our technology in any way possible to help the cause. Next week, I will provide you some greater detail on this work. Very exciting start!
Please stay safe, keep social distancing and support your local businesses as safely as possible!