In March 2020, as the COVID19 virus entered the United States, WVU Health Sciences Center assembled a COVID19 task force led by Dr. Laura Gibson, Senior Associate Vice President for Research & Graduate Education. In response to the mounting shortages of testing kits, protective equipment and the lack of a cure the task force moved to develop in-house resources to fight the COVID19 pandemic. COVID19 task force teams of scientist and engineers from the WVU Health Sciences Center, School of Arts and Sciences, and School of Engineering started work to develop RT-PCR and serological tests, develop a vaccine, setup production of sample collection kits, develop environmental testing procedures and evaluate the performance of personal protective equipment. The department of Biochemistry staff and faculty were involved in all of these efforts.
Dr. Peter Stoilov (Department of Biochemistry) and Dr. Ivan Martinez (Department of Microbiology) were charged to lead a team to develop the RT-PCR testing protocol. The team delivered a robust and cost-efficient testing protocol. With funding from the state of West Virginia the team worked with the Department of Pathology staff to establish the Rapid Development Laboratory (RDL), a facility for rapid clinical test development and flexible clinical testing. The RDL lab has been using the newly developed COVID19 tests procedure to screen WVU faculty, students and staff, National Guard members, and members of the community since October 2020. Recognizing the need for rapid turnaround, the RDL lab has consistently delivered test results within 24 hour of sample collection. The team moved to develop and put in production an automated version of the protocol that shortens processing time and increases the number of samples that can be analyzed dramatically. Further increases in the number of samples analyzed every day will be achieved by sample pooling and that is planned to enter production in January 2021.
Faculty and staff from the Department of Biochemistry were the core of the development and implementation efforts for the RT-PCR test. Dr. Alexey Ivanov produced lentiviral particles carrying COVID19 RNA sequences. These viral particles provided safe means to develop the testing protocol. More importantly Dr. Ivanov's viral particles are present in every batch of samples that RDL tests to ensure the procedure performs according to the expectations. Dr. Aaron Robart, a renowned RNA crystallographer, created large quantities of pure RNA that were used to demonstrate the high sensitivity and precision of the COVID19 testing procedure. An "armored" RNA control created by Dr. Robart is present in every test we do to ensure that every single sample is processed correctly and no false negative results are reported. Dr. Marieta Gencheva worked with staff and volunteers for WVU Health Sciences center to evaluate the performance of the RT-PCR protocol and fine tune the standard operating procedures so that the test works reliably under all circumstances. The team was greatly supported by Mrs. Oxana Tseytlin, who rapidly prototyped on a 3D printer custom magnetic separation racks and labware holders.
While the main focus of the Department of Biochemistry was on the development of the RT-PCR tests, our faculty and staff provides critical support for the effort by Dr. Frederic (Heath) Damron (Department of Microbiology) to establish tests for COVID19 virus particles and anti-COVID19 antibodies, and to develop a vaccine. Dr. Paolo Fagone, manager of the Biochemistry Protein Core, produced large quantities of COVID19 proteins that are at the core of the serological tests and the vaccine being developed by Dr. Damron. Dr. Ivanov created a lentivirus that masquerade as COVID19, allowing Dr. Damron's team to routinely evaluate the performance of his vaccine and serological tests on live viruses without risking exposure to COVID19.
The Department of Biochemistry faculty and staff are proud of the difference they make in the fight with COVID19 and improving the health and wellbeing of the people of West Virginia.
Main Author: Dr. Peter Stoilov
Photo caption: from left to right, Dr. Paolo Fagone, Dr. Aaron Robart, Dr. Alexey Ivanov, Dr. Peter Stoilov, and Dr. Marieta Gencheva. Picture taken by: Dr. Maxim Sokolov