Fighting COVID-19 with Technology

Professor applies his current research to explore ways to screen for and kill the virus 

If innovation is born of necessity, today’s COVID-19 crisis poses urgent opportunities. As scientists and engineers desperately search for ways to address the devastating impacts of the virus, many are taking a second look at their existing research to see how it might be applied to treatment, testing, and prevention.

Umer Hassan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers School of Engineering, is committed to saving lives by waging war against pressing global health problems. And for Hassan, defeating the coronavirus has become an urgent research priority and a natural extension of his existing research.

Hassan, who also holds a joint appointment as a core faculty member at Rutgers Global Health Institute, has developed a sensor that can quantify the ability of human white blood cells to kill bacterial pathogens. 

“We are processing only a drop of blood sample on a sensor chip,” he says. “Rather than using actual bacteria, we are testing with biofunctionalized microspheres to measure the phagocytic response of leukocytes.”

Now he is hoping to apply similar technology to the fight against COVID-19. “It will be interesting to see if a sensor can be employed to stratify high risk coronavirus patients – to see if white blood cells can effectively kill the virus,” says Hassan, who hopes to receive funding for this project. If his hunch is right, it could lead to therapeutic innovations. 

Such exploration is a natural extension of Hassan’s recent work in developing an inexpensive automated biosensor device that even minimally trained health care providers can use to diagnose sepsis – an infection that is responsible for as many as six million largely preventable deaths a year*. 

Hassan is rising to the challenge of developing a diagnostic sensor to help combat the coronavirus’ spread. “We’re still learning about the COVID-19 virus. There’s a strong possibility that it will mutate – just as influenza viruses mutate into different strains each year – before a vaccine is developed,” he explains.  

The likelihood of mutations intensifies Hassan’s determination to develop a rapid, easy-to-use widespread screening test. “The only reason COVID-19 has become a global outbreak is because of the lack of a screening test at points of entry across the globe,” he says. “Initially, people’s temperatures were taken to check for fevers. Now we are learning that this isn’t a reliable test, as many infected people have no symptoms and no fever. Relying on temperature screening alone helped spread the virus very quickly.” Looking ahead, he anticipates that developing a reliable sensor for screening and identifying those infected with the coronavirus could very well become a primary research goal.

Another of Hassan’s research projects has promising implications for the COVID-19 fight. “We have synthesized eco-friendly silver nanoparticles from plant extracts that are just as toxic to bacterial pathogens such as E. coli or certain strains of staphylococcus as hazardous chemicals.”  While he has yet to test the silver nanoparticles on the coronavirus, he has submitted a grant proposal to do this.

Hassan additionally hopes to embed these eco-friendly silver nanoparticles in surgical masks. As the mask wearer inhales, airborne pathogens would be filtered into the mask and killed by the silver nanoparticles. “This is a next-generation mask that would solve a major problem for those wearing masks for a long time,” says Hassan. “Currently, as masks capture particles over time, the mask itself becomes highly biohazardous.” It is a potentially elegant solution to issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic’s shortage of efficacious PPE. 

Hassan is in close contact with the Rutgers Office of Research Commercialization and exploring ways to rapidly translate these technologies into different health-care settings. 

*World Health Organization, April 2019