ChemE donates equipment to battle COVID-19

Adam Dove

Apr 8, 2020

Keith Cook drove up to the Allegheny County Emergency Services building on March 20 barely able to see out of his rearview mirror. His passenger seat, rear seats and trunk were packed with unused personal protective equipment, or PPE, collected from various labs in Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering.

Cook, a professor of biomedical engineering (BME) and director of the Bioengineered Organs Initiative, is among the CMU researchers who, upon learning their labs were required to temporarily close in the ongoing effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, sought to donate their PPE to health care workers on the front-lines of the fight against the new coronavirus. Along with these donations, supplies were also contributed by the departments of Mechanical Engineering, and Chemical Engineering (ChemE). The donation totaled 621 items, including 244 boxes of gloves and 160 N95 masks from 14 different research groups.

But thanks to the breadth of research on genetic sequencing being done in ChemE, in particular by professors Katie Whitehead, Jim Schneider, and Elizabeth Wayne, the department also had the ability to contribute additional equipment to help medical professionals test patients for COVID-19.

“In Chemical Engineering, we donated gloves, masks and disposable gowns, as well as ethanol for sanitization,” says ChemE/BME Assistant Professor Elizabeth Wayne. “But in addition to this PPE, we were also able to donate viral RNA isolation kits, which are essential in testing patients for COVID-19.”

According to Wayne, the test involves a three-step process. First, you need a sample of the patient’s saliva or mucus. From there, you have to isolate the RNA, before finally amplifying and analyzing the sample to see if it contains the virus. This is a fairly basic technique, one that students in the ChemE department are very familiar with. But it requires special equipment in the form of viral RNA isolation kits—kits that the department was thrilled to be able to provide, in hopes that they might be of help to Allegheny County Emergency Services.

"Personal protection equipment will always be in demand throughout this crisis," said Chief Matt Brown, director of Allegheny County Emergency Services. "We are grateful to Carnegie Mellon University for this donation, and appreciate how everyone is coming together to support these needs as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic."

“The ability to be of help has been great our students in ChemE,” Wayne says. “To not only feel like they had a way to help, but that the work they were doing in their classes and in the lab could be useful in this time. Our students have studied RNA isolation in viruses. And they’re thinking about the challenges we’re facing now, and how chemical engineers could be helpful. We’re running out of sanitizer: that’s a batch process that we know how to solve. How can we separate antibody proteins from those who have already recovered from the virus and use that to help? Our students are starting to consider these challenges.”

Since this first donation, ChemE has been able to donate even more PPE in the form of examination gloves, thanks to the continued efforts of many faculty, including Professor Lynn Walker. This collaborative effort not only within the College of Engineering, but across Carnegie Mellon University as a whole, brought together students and faculty alike to use their expertise to assist in the current crisis. These efforts occurred jointly between researchers and members of Carnegie Mellon's Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

To read more about the university-wide efforts being made to help the community in this time of crisis, click here.