When the pandemic started last March, Gerardine “Gerri” Botte, professor and Whitacre department chair of the Chemical Engineering Department at Texas Tech, was working on a project regarding E. Coli in water and began to wonder if there was a way to apply this research to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In April, she established a connection with a professor within the Tech Health Sciences Center and told her of an idea. Now, as the one-year mark of stay-at-home orders approaches, Botte prepares to test her innovative, Ultrafast COVID-19 Diagnostic Sensor on the population.

“I felt like at the beginning, the majority of people took the traditional approach using PCR technologies,” Botte said. “This is so completely different that it’s taken people time to realize the impact, so we’re very excited about it.”

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, is a technique used to amplify small segments of DNA.

Botte and her team, which includes her research assistant, Ashwin Ramanujam, and Dr. Sharilyn Almodovar, an assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Molecular Microbiology at the HSC, bought saliva from banks and tested the proteins of the virus and the detection limit of the Sensor, Botte said.

“We have, so far, 100 percent sensitivity and specificity, which is really good,” Botte said.

However, it is important to note the testing was done in a controlled environment, buying saliva from a bank, Botte said. Her team will compare results once they are able to test the Ultrafast COVID-19 Diagnostic Sensor in the field.

Now, Botte said her team is working with the university to start testing at Tech with the technology and are hopeful to start in mid-February. Her team will be at the testing site at Tech asking for samples and donations to test with her Ultrafast COVID-19 Diagnostic Sensor.

The Sensor, Botte said, is very small and looks like the piece of paper used to measure PH.

When an individual gets tested using the Ultrafast COVID-19 Diagnostic Sensor, they supply a small sample of saliva, about .2 milliliters, which Botte said will probably be collected in a biohazard cubit, which is a container designed for the safe disposal of biohazardous material.

The sample is then taken to a machine that contains the Ultrafast COVID-19 Diagnostic Sensor, and then adds a solution to bring the sample to the right conditions for measurement, Botte said.

Then, a button on the bottom is pressed, and the machine gives a positive or negative COVID-19 test result within seconds, Botte said.

“The solution that we add to enable the measurement also deactivates the virus for the future,” Botte said. “So, basically it shouldn’t be a biohazard anymore, which is also a tremendous advantage when you talk about other techniques.”

Today, when a sample of saliva is taken, it sometimes must be kept at a certain temperature, usually freezing, Botte said. After the measurement is taken it becomes a biohazard, so the solution eliminates that issue. The solution is readily available and produced at the bulk/commodity level by the petrochemical industry.

Testing on the population and preparations to make the technology available for everyone are happening at the same time, Botte said. Part of the team is looking at FDA approval and manufacturing, while the other part is continuing research and tests at the university.

As a professor, Botte said she cannot pursue FDA approval for the Ultrafast COVID-19 Diagnostic Sensor, so a company was established to commercialize the product. This company is currently pursuing FDA approval.

“The idea is, we need to have the resources to manufacture and to bring this to practice and that’s moving in parallel,” Botte said.

Though Dr. Sharilyn Almodovar was unable to comment, Botte’s Research Assistant, Ashwin Ramanujam, spoke on his involvement in the project.

Ramanujam has been working with Botte for over a year, he said. He was working with her on her development of the sensor that could detect E. Coli, and when they brainstormed ways the technology could somehow be used to test COVID-19.

Since the beginning of their research, Ramanujam said they have learned a lot about COVID-19.

“Getting to explore more is one of the most exciting things of this project,” Ramanujam said, “because nobody in the world knows, and we are all learning together.”

Balancing school and research was difficult at first, Ramanujam said, but it got easier over the summer, and he is now readjusting to balancing both. 

However, Ramanujam said it has been surreal to be a part of a team that could help quell this pandemic, and that makes it worth it.

“If you had asked me last March if I thought I’d be working on something of this caliber I would’ve said no,” Ramanujam said.

Botte’s team is investigating the Ultrafast COVID-19 Diagnostic Sensor’s effectiveness on new strains of the virus now and will be able to evaluate more as they move into the field, Botte said.

Though it is exciting to finally be moving forward to the next step of the research process, Botte said she wished she could have done it earlier, but it required support and resources she did not have at the time.

Next, Botte said she is about to begin a program where they capture the virus in the air, making it possible to sense the COVID-19 virus in buildings.

“It’s very exciting,” Botte said, “because we’re going to help stop this pandemic.”

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