As researchers across the globe are working on preventing the spread of COVID-19, professors in the Faculty of Engineering are responding to the challenge in unique and compelling ways. These are six researchers who are using their diverse expertise towards making an impact.
The path towards a vaccine
Professor Amine Kamen (Bioengineering) and his research group are working hard to produce a safe, cost-effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Kamen, a Canada Research Chair in Bioprocessing of Viral Vaccines, has dedicated years of research towards the prevention of ongoing viral diseases. Throughout his academic career, he has developed vaccines for Influenza, Ebola, and Rabies.
“The driver of my work is being prepared for emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” says Kamen.
Addressing these diseases saves tens of thousands of lives each year. A key point for him has been learning how to process these vaccines in a way that makes them as accessible as possible on a global scale.
“It is critical to increase the capacity for vaccine manufacturing so we can reduce the impact of preventable illnesses.”
With funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), Kamen’s team, in collaboration with Prof. Denis Leclerc (Université Laval), are rapidly designing a nanoparticle-based vaccine that uses antigens coupled with a unique adjuvant to trigger a protective immune response against the novel coronavirus.
Adjuvants improve vaccines by boosting the body’s immune reaction and the production of neutralizing antibodies.
“The combination of the two would make a very effective vaccine,” explains Kamen. “As a result, you would be immune not just to COVID-19, but also to related coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS.”
So why does it take so long for vaccines to reach the market?
“The crucial factor is safety, safety, safety.”
Vaccines need to undergo a series of phases and tests to ensure they are safe to be used. They also need to prove effective in protecting a large population. All this can take many months.
Kamen is encouraged by the motivation and influx of researchers contacting him to help collaborate on the vaccine against COVID-19. He believes working as a collective and sharing expertise will only benefit the production of vaccine platforms that can be used around the world for years to come.
“I hope this will be maintained beyond the current crisis. We need to converge and work together.”
Rapid testing is critical for the early detection of COVID-19. The labs of Professor Andrew Kirk (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Professor Mark Trifiro (Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research) are collaborating to make commonly used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) point-of-care tests faster and more reliable. So fast, in fact, that the virus could be detected in 10 minutes or less.
A large focus for Kirk has been developing biosensors for a variety of point-of-care applications, from determining bacterial contamination in water, to diagnosing medical conditions such as cancer and heart disease. A biosensor, such as a PCR device, works by converting a biological reaction into an electrical signal.
Most COVID-19 tests use PCR technology, a technique that was invented over 40 years ago to amplify, or copy, DNA. Through this process, billions of copies of a single DNA molecule are generated when there’s a match between DNA/RNA swabbed from a patient and that of the “primer,” thus making the virus detectable.
The standard PRC approach for DNA amplification involves repeatedly heating and cooling a sample using electrical heating, which is a relatively slow process that consumes a lot of energy.
“We came up with a technique that focuses on heating the PCR solution instead by shining a laser from outside the tube,” explains Kirk. This makes the heating and cooling cycles more efficient, and ultimately, allows for quicker results.
With funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) and the Jewish General Hospital Foundation, Kirk and Trifiro are developing a machine that uses this technique. If successful, the system will be able to run tests for COVID-19 under 10 minutes once the viral RNA has been extracted from a nasal swab.
Their invention has been patented and will be manufactured by their start-up, Pronto Biomedical Technologies, with the potential of being ready within the month.
“This would be a game-changer for the control of infections such as COVID-19,” adds Kirk. “Moreover, since PCR is so flexible and is used so widely, we hope that this technology can be deployed for many other targets.”
Professor Sara Mahshid’s lab (Bioengineering) is leveraging colour as a path to faster COVID-19 testing.
Designing point-of-care nanomaterial-based biosensors and microfluidic lab-on-chips for applications in healthcare and diagnostics has been the foundation of Mahshid’s research. For the past year, her lab has been working on devices that apply colourimetry to analyze antibiotic sensitivity and cancer biomarkers. This technique uses colour to both detect the presence of specific genetic material, as well as quantify its concentration.
“A quantifiable approach is important for clinicians because it can give them information not only about the presence of a virus, but also its stage,” explains Mahshid.
Funded by the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4) grant, Mahshid and her collaborator, Dr. Chen Liang (Jewish General Hospital),are developing a microfluidic prototype using a colourimetric approach to streamline COVID-19 testing. The prototype employs ultrasensitive colour-changing characteristics (like those of LED TVs) that can be monitored in a bright field microscope, or more simply, with the naked eye. This removes the need for complex instruments or trained personnel, allowing for the possibility of at-home tests.
Using this simplified, one-step amplification approach also means that fewer reagents are used, reducing the expense while maintaining PCR sensitivity.
“The materials to run this type of test are cheap, so the method is very cost-effective and quick,” says Mahshid.
With the potentiality of a 10-minute result time, this prototype would be a very portable and rapid diagnostic solution.
Antiviral materials and surfaces
Most of us are now accustomed to frequently washing our hands, quickly laundering outdoor clothing, and painstakingly disinfecting high-touch surfaces. But what if we made the materials and surfaces themselves antiviral? The labs of Professor Marta Cerruti and Professor Subhasis Ghoshal are working on doing just that.
Professor Marta Cerruti (Materials Engineering) has a current project underway with Professor Reza Farivar (Faculty of Medicine), founder of the Respirator Challenge, and Professor Rhongtuan Lin (Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research), virologist expert, to produce a coating for fabric that would kill the novel coronavirus on contact.
This isn’t the first time Cerruti and Farivar have collaborated on a project – Cerruti’s expertise in understanding the interaction between material and biological surfaces brought them to work together once before to create implants that better integrate with bone.
The antiviral substance Cerruti’s lab is developing could be applied to a variety of clothing and materials such as masks, scarves, and gloves,and is meant to be accessible to a wide range of users.
“We wanted to create something that would be easy to manufacture and apply,” says Cerruti.
With the shortage of N95 masks and the elevated contact risk for health care providers, the coating would benefit the medical community, increasing the safety and efficacy of their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The general public could also coat articles of clothing they already have on hand, adding an extra layer of protection to face coverings and, therefore, reducing the likelihood of getting the virus.
Preliminary antiviral tests from Lin’s lab have been promising, according to Cerruti: “In the first type of tests, the coatings killed the virus but not the cells, which was exciting.”
Once the coating passes more tests, including those of biocompatibility to ensure it’s safe for human use, they will partner with a company for production.
“We are hoping to have something that could be given to people in three to six months,” adds Cerruti, “so we are trying to move fast.”
Cleaner, more sustainable practices in both research and industry are crucial for Professor Subhasis Ghoshal (Civil Engineering), Director of the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design (TISED). Specializing in environmental engineering, he has been researching the ways in which nanoparticles in consumer and industrial products interact with the natural world.
“A goal for me has been ensuring nanomaterials are used in sustainable ways,” says Ghoshal.
As the use of strong cleansers and soaps to sanitize surfaces has increased dramatically in the wake of COVID-19, Ghoshal is exploring a potentially greener avenue: creating a self-cleaning surface in lieu of using large volumes of disinfectant.
Drawing from his research of adding silver nanoparticles to paint in order to make the paint antimicrobial (silver is an antibacterial element), he is examining how silver-containing paint could be used to make surfaces antiviral as well. Working with a local custom-paint manufacturer, Ghoshal has already carried out tests that have shown that the disinfecting capacity of silver actually increases when it is added to paint.
The next step is to find a collaborator who specializes in viruses and secure funding in order to pursue this line of research further: “My quest right now is to show that this silver-containing paint could be antiviral, so it can be used in high throughput areas, like airports, or in medical settings to keep surfaces clean."
In addition to his research, Ghoshal is currently planning the 7th Annual TISED symposium, “Lessons from a Pandemic: Solutions for Addressing the Climate Change Crisis,” featuring Dr. Michael E. Mann and Dr. Naomi Oreskes. Witnessing how scientific communication about the virus has been able to spark positive change in government policies and individual behaviour, he’s looking forward to examining the ways these discussions can be leveraged to also benefit our environment.
"Using the parallel of COVID-19,” he adds, “there may be a better consensus on developing effective messaging around measures we need to take to reduce the impacts of climate change."
Uncovering hidden details
For the past 30 years, Professor Raynald Gauvin (Materials Engineering) has worked on making microscopes more accessible. Part of his research has gone towards developing new, less expensive methods of doing high-resolution microscopy.
Traditionally, in order to get the most powerful degree of magnification and the highest image resolution, a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) would need to be used. TEMs, however, are very large, expensive to buy, and difficult to operate.
An alternative for many researchers is to use Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), which is more cost-effective and readily available. The downside is a lower image resolution.
“A TEM is like filet mignon and an SEM is like a Big Mac,” explains Gauvin. “There's a big gap.”
His research has focused on closing that gap, introducing a new technology, the field emission gun, which became available in the mid ‘90s. This has allowed him to develop new methods of characterizing the microstructure of materials and imaging to increase the capabilities of SEMs. So much so that his SEMs can view atoms – something that was previously only possible with TEMs. In addition, his technique uses the low voltage of SEMs to capture details such as nanopores that TEMs might be able to capture with much less contrast due to their high-energy output. As such, he runs one of the most advanced SEM labs in the world.
When COVID-19 struck, he thought to apply the technology he has created for SEMs to potentially “see what no one else has seen” regarding the virus cells.
Gauvin is hoping his microscopes can capture information about the virus that might not be visible with a high-voltage machine. The result would mean many more labs around the world could partake in the research.
“If we can demonstrate that this technique of microscopy helps, then it can be used across virology labs.”
In addition to these six researchers, a growing number of professors across the Faculty of Engineering are adapting their work to make significant strides in COVID-19 research. Below is a glance at some of the new projects that are underway:
Prof. Annmarie Adams (Architecture): Exploring architectural responses to illness from the 19th century to the present day
Prof. Jeff Bergthorson (Mechanical Engineering): Investigating how the combustion of metals in microgravity phenomena can be used as a model for understanding the propagation of infectious diseases
Prof. Sharmistha Bhadra (Electrical and Computer Engineering): Creating a low-cost vital sign monitoring device for at-home COVID-19 patients
Prof. Sylvain Coulombe (Chemical Engineering): Developing plasma-based technologies for selective cancer treatment, food processing, and sanitation
Prof. Noémie-Manuelle Dorval Courchesne (Chemical Engineering): Developing clothing fabric with antiviral technology
Prof. Mark Driscoll (Mechanical Engineering): Designing an inexpensive, open-source ventilator
Prof. Allen Ehrlicher (Bioengineering): Examining airway smooth muscle contractibility for potential applications in cell mechanic COVID-19 pathology
Prof. Ahmed El-Geneidy (Urban Planning): Analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on our public transit systems and travel patterns
Prof. Amine Emad (Electrical and Computer): Developing novel deep learning (DL) methods to increase efficacy of drugs administered to patients affected by COVID-19
Prof. James Forbes (Mechanical Engineering): Developing a testing system to analyze the mechanical and contractile functionality of muscle tissue
Prof. Dominic Frigon (Civil Engineering): Tracking COVID-19 in wastewater as a means of understanding its spread and part of Canadian coalition delivering a COVID-19 sewer surveillance program
Prof. Corinne Hoesli (Chemical Engineering): Examining ways peptides from COVID-19 could be used to create a cell-based cancer vaccine
Prof. Anna Kietzig (Chemical Engineering): Generating functional nanoparticles (NP) via femtosecond laser irradiation with potential antiviral properties
Prof. Michael Kokkolaras (Mechanical Engineering): Creating agent-based models to help analyze the effectiveness of disease control measures
Prof. Anna Kramer (Urban Planning): Analyzing public spaces and equity during a pandemic
Prof. Harry Leib (Electrical and Computer Engineering): Tensor modeling and statistical inference for big data with applications to monitoring COVID-19
Prof. Odile Liboiron-Ladouceur (Electrical and Computer Engineering): Developing silicon photonic sensors for COVID-19 and other diseases
Prof. Rosaire Mongrain (Mechanical Engineering): Building a compact and affordable extracorporeal blood oxygenator
Prof. Chris Moraes (Chemical Engineering): Developing rapid prototyping techniques to produce microfluidic devices with diagnostic capabilities
Prof. Sidney Omelon (Materials Engineering): Examining decontamination procedures for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Prof. Tho Le-Ngoc (Electrical Engineering): Developing a Sensing/Localization/Detecting/Warning system which can address cough/sneeze pathology
Prof. Viviane Yargeau (Chemical Engineering): Part of Canadian coalition delivering a COVID-19 sewer surveillance program
Prof. Stephen Yue (Materials Engineering): Examining cold spray copper coating as corrosion protection for fuel storage containers and its potential to be antiviral
Prof. Songrui Zhao (Electrical and Computer Engineering): Developing compact, high power nanolasers to enable disinfection of medical instrumentation